Police crimes too big to hide

June 21, 2016

David Judd looks at the multiple scandals rocking the Oakland Police Department--and at what they reveal about police abuse and violence everywhere in the U.S.

OAKLAND'S POLICE department has had three chiefs in the last two weeks, and right now, it doesn't have one at all.

After simultaneous scandals involving murder, open racism and the sexual exploitation of a teenager, Mayor Libby Schaaf, has admitted that there is "clearly a toxic macho culture"--a gross understatement--in the department and placed the department under the management of the civilian city administrator.

The chaos began with the revelation that Oakland police officers, together with cops from multiple other departments, extorted sex from a teenage girl in exchange for protection on the street, freedom from arrest, tip-offs about vice squad busts and sometimes money. At least 14 Oakland officers traded the victim, who used the alias Celeste Guap, among themselves. At least four of them did so while she was 17 years old, below the age of consent in California.

The scandal was slow burning until two weeks ago. It began to emerge when officer Brendan O'Brien, one of the first cops to abuse Guap, committed suicide in September 2015, leaving a note that revealed his relationship with her. O'Brien is now also suspected of having killed his wife the year before, a death which received only a cursory investigation from fellow OPD officers before being ruled a suicide.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff speaks while former Police Chief Sean Whent looks on
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaff speaks while former Police Chief Sean Whent looks on

O'Brien's suicide note triggered an internal affairs investigation into the possible statutory rape of Guap, but that didn't lead immediately to any charges. In fact, it might have gone nowhere again--except for the fact that Oakland Police Department (OPD) is still under federal monitoring, because it has not yet completed reforms ordered by a court after another scandal 13 years before.

Judge Thelton Henderson, who imposed the reforms, learned about the incomplete investigation and issued an order directing Robert Warshaw, the federal monitor, to take over, citing "irregularities" and "potential violations."

Warshaw's investigation revealed not only the involvement of dozens of cops in the exploitation of Guap, but also proof that Julie Whent, the wife of Oakland's chief of police, knew about it well before anything was done. Warshaw seems to have inferred that her spouse, Chief Sean Whent, knew as well, and that his inaction, together with the bungled homicide and internal-affairs investigations, required Whent's resignation.

MAYOR SCHAAF announced Whent's departure on June 10, saying it was for "personal reasons." But she was proven to be a liar just hours later.

The same underlying facts had been discovered by two reporters for the East Bay Express, Ali Winston and Darwin Bond-Graham, who blew the scandal wide open with a story published the same day.

Schaaf initially appointed Ben Fairow, an ex-OPD officer serving as deputy chief of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system police, as interim head of Oakland's department. But he in turn was forced to resign just five days later, when Schaaf "received information that...caused [her] to lose confidence" in him.

Schaaf tried OPD Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa next, but he only lasted two days before the discovery of more as-yet-undisclosed information forced him to take a leave of absence and a demotion to captain--leaving an outsider to the department, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, in charge.

Meanwhile, another scandal has become public, in which OPD officers exchanged racist texts, containing Klan imagery and the N-word. As far as the public is concerned, it's currently unclear whether Fairow's and Figueroa's ousters were tied to the racist text scandal, the abuse of Guap or yet other horrors still lurking below the surface.

Schaaf, who was elected to Oakland's City Council in 2010 and then mayor in 2014, has long been one of the most consistently pro-cop, law-and-order politicians in the city. She spent her first day as mayor hanging out with rank-and-file cops, and one of her first notable acts was the institution of a ban on nighttime marches, first enforced against Black Lives Matter demonstrators during the #SayHerName actions in May 2015.

But between the racist texts and having to oust a third chief, she must have decided that political survival required her to put as much distance between herself and the OPD as possible, if only rhetorically.

Protests by Oakland's activists might well prevent from Schaaf getting away with that.

Whent's firing wasn't directly a consequence of political activism, as was the case with the recent ouster of San Francisco's chief Greg Suhr.

But the development of the Black Lives Matter movement, together with the earlier fights for justice for Oscar Grant, Alan Blueford and other victims of Oakland police murder, form the context in which a mayor might feel the need to sacrifice a prominent individual in order to preserve the viability of the police as an institution.

A proposed ballot measure to establish an elected civilian police commission with the power to fire cops didn't receive enough signatures to get on the November ballot without a vote by the City Council, and as of a month ago, a push to have the Council place it on the ballot was stalled in committee. But in the wake of the scandals, a weakened version was moved forward on June 14, and suddenly, a temporary form of civilian oversight is already in place.

A fight is looming over whether it will be made meaningful and permanent--or whether Schaaf and her allies will be able to take us back, after a while, to the way things were, with no real accountability for police. Oakland police have gotten away with killing a number of people, most of them Black, in the last few years, but a straw has finally broken at least their leadership's back. That doesn't guarantee real change, but it provides an opportunity.

IT'S IRONIC that the final straw was something which qualifies under state law as a sex trafficking, given that Oakland's police department labeled the city the "hub of the West for underage prostitution" and publicly claimed that it is making a priority of fighting it. But in fact, the criminalization of sex work facilitated Guap's exploitation by providing cops with a power over her life that, unsurprisingly, they abused.

Guap, who talked at length to the East Bay Express, doesn't seem to have described herself as a rape victim, but as Katherine Koster of the Sex Workers Outreach Project told the Express, the fact that any cop who was unhappy with what she offered or didn't offer sexually could have placed her under arrest makes it clearly a "coercive situation."

The president of Oakland's police union told the Los Angeles Times that "those who are out there today serving the citizens of Oakland, this isn't what they're made of." But plainly, it is. On top of the Oakland cop who killed himself, two others have resigned, and three more have been placed on leave, but the rest are still on the streets.

It will be harder than ever in the coming months for defenders of the police to claim persuasively that the problem is just a few "bad apples," or even just one rotten barrel in Oakland.

It's not just that the Oakland cops directly involved in either the abuse of Guap or the racist text messages amount to a significant percentage of the force, which has less than 800 officers. And it's not just that Schaaf has been unable to find a ranking cop in the department who is scandal-free.

Richmond police and Alameda County sheriff's deputies are also under investigation for coercing sex from Guap; a Contra Costa County deputy has already been suspended for "sex with an underage girl," who may be Guap or another victim entirely; plus a federal officer was involved, too, according to the Express.

It would be reasonable to conclude that Oakland's police are unusual only because so many of their abuses have become public.

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