The federal judge overseeing reform efforts for the Oakland Police Department plans to retire this year after a storied law career dating back to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, including a 37-year tenure as a federal judge in San Francisco.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, 83, will perhaps be most remembered for putting California’s prison health care system under federal control in 2006 after finding it so poor that it violated minimum constitutional standards, but his long career encompasses numerous cases on affirmative action, police reform and prisoners’ rights.
Henderson started his law career after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley in 1962, becoming the first black investigator for the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division. In that role, he was deployed to the Deep South at the height of the civil rights movement investigating voting rights practices.
While in Birmingham, he was staying in the same motel as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and loaned his rental car to King, spurring accusations that the Department of Justice was taking sides in the civil rights movement and ultimately costing Henderson his job.
Born in Louisiana, Henderson had been a U.S. Army corporal between 1956 and 1958 before entering Berkeley on a football scholarship. After leaving the Justice Department, he went into private practice.
He was an assistant dean at Stanford Law School from 1968 to 1977 and an associate professor at the Golden Gate University School of Law from 1978 until 1980, when President Jimmy Carter nominated him to be a federal judge.
Henderson has been overseeing the implementation of reforms of the embattled Oakland Police Department for over a decade. The reforms are part of a negotiated settlement agreement reached in 2003 from the infamous Riders scandal, where Oakland police officers were accused of kidnapping, beating and planting evidence on citizens.
The dozens of reforms ordered have taken years to accomplish.
Henderson said today that the end of the reforms seemed close before the department was dealt a major setback: a scandal involving the sexual exploitation of a sex trafficking victim by multiple Oakland police officers. In an order last year, Henderson blasted the department’s internal investigation into the scandal.
“I was beginning to say to them that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Henderson said. “They had four major areas that they had left to get to get into compliance, that was way down from 30-something, then the sex scandal and all the other things just derailed it.”
But Henderson is hopeful that the reforms will be completed soon, and said that while he hasn’t met incoming police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, he likes what she’s said so far about accountability for
“I hated to see (former Chief) Sean Whent go, I thought he was a good chief but he kind of got caught up in the sex thing,” Henderson said. “It’s a real loss, he’s a good man.”
Whent resigned as details of the scandal were made public, setting off a chaotic period in which two other chiefs were appointed and stepped down within about a week. The department was left without a police chief at all, but that will change next month when Kirkpatrick takes over.
Moving forward, Henderson said oversight of the reform efforts will be handed to a colleague when he retires in August, the time that a new crop of law clerks would be coming in for a new year.
“I just know we’ve got an excellent bench here and I know that whoever gets the case will talk to me about my view of the case, and I expect not a thing to change,” Henderson said.
Henderson had already made the decision to retire last August, when his last new group of law clerks came in. He said that each time he hires a new group, he feels committed to staying on for another year.
He said his wife, a professor at San Jose State University, will also retire this year and they are planning to take car trips around California and the western U.S. along with their dog Missy to visit friends and go sightseeing.
Asked to pick a standout moment from his long career on the bench, he couldn’t, and said that the best part has been the totality of the job. “It’s been the best job I could have ever had,” Henderson said.
He remembered a moment from early on in his career as a judge when he was talking to a former colleague, William Orrick Sr., whose son is now a federal judge as well. Orrick was an early mentor to Henderson, he said, and would come into Henderson’s office periodically and sit at the edge of his desk and say, “We’ve got the best job in the world.”
And while the Oakland police cases and federal prison cases will probably most define his legacy, Henderson said there are other much smaller cases where he feels he made the right ruling for the little guy that he’s proud of.
“I hope I’ve made a difference in some people’s lives along the way,” he said.
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