3 Chiefs In 9 Days: Oakland Police Department In Scandal Meltdown

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, left, speaks beside then Oakland police chief Sean Whent in Oakland, Calif. CREDIT: BEN MARGOT, AP
Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, left, speaks beside then Oakland police chief Sean Whent in Oakland, Calif. CREDIT: BEN MARGOT, AP

The Oakland Police Department is now under civilian control after a series of incidents of misconduct recently came to light. Multiple police chiefs stepped down after allegations that officers raped an underage sex trafficking victim, covered up crimes, and sent racist text messages.

Oakland has gone through three police chiefs in the past nine days. The latest acting police chief, Paul Figueroa, resigned from his post on Friday but Mayor Libby Schaaf did not say why. She only said that Figueroa would take a leave of absence because he was “unable to fulfill the functions of the Acting Chief of Police,” according to CBS News. The department’s command staff now reports to Sabrina Landreth, the city administrator.

The latest controversy is over racist text messages, such as a text obtained by NBC News that showed a picture of a Ku Klux Klan member on a cereal box. The box message read, “Brad, I heard you got boxes of these in your cupboards” as well as a text using the n-word. Schaaf said that the texting scandal is not widespread throughout the department. Yet racism within the department has been a longstanding issue. Stanford researchers found that during a 13-month period, looking at 28,000 field reports of stops, 17,000 of those stops involved officers halting black people on the street.

The department is still under federal oversight after incidents in 2000 where veteran police officers, known as the “Rough Riders,” planted evidence and beat citizens. In 2012, the department came under scrutiny from a federal judge for its handling of the Occupy Oakland protests. The department was supposed to engage in a number of reforms since then and had begun to rebuild trust with the public as violent crimes and use-of-force complaints were down, the Mercury News reported.

High on the list of the serious investigations facing the department: a number of officers may have raped an underage sex trafficking victim. The woman, now 18-years-old, said the sex trafficking involved 14 officers from the Oakland Police Department as well as officers from other police departments in the area. Two officers at the San Francisco Police Department may also have been involved in the scandal.

The discovery of the officers’ alleged rape of an underage trafficking victim happened after an Oakland police officer, Brendan O’Brien, died by suicide and left a note mentioning details of a sex trafficking scandal. The alleged victim, Celeste Guap, said O’Brien “saved” her from a pimp who was chasing her. She was 17 years old at the time. But as the East Bay Express, which broke the story, reported, O’Brien did not temporarily detain Guap as a sex trafficking victim for her safety, as some departments do, but instead let her go.

When they saw each other again a couple weeks later they exchanged numbers and began, as Guap puts it, “dating.” She was trafficked among O’Brien’s fellow officers for half a year. Guap herself said she saw the acts as a form of protection from arrest, the East Bay Express reported, and as the publication states, this amounts to coercion from officers. Guap said that at the time, she thought the officers were giving her protection, and recently said, “I do see myself as being a victim, because I do feel like I was taken advantage of.”

There was an internal investigation into the possibility that officers trafficked the then-17-year-old. Then a federal judge ordered another investigation into the alleged trafficking, where officers admitted that they lied about their interactions with Guap during the first investigation and an officer also admitted he knew she was underage.

In June, Police Chief Sean Whent stepped down after three years of serving as chief, due to what he called a “personal choice,” but there are reports that Whent’s wife knew O’Brien was engaging in statutory rape. Guap said she contacted Whent’s wife, Julie, to tell her she was “dating an officer” while she was 17 years old, the Bay area local television station, KRON reported. Ben Farrow followed Whent as interim police chief but Mayor Schaaf said she discovered information about Farrow that would not allow him to continue as chief. The latest controversy over racist text messages is unconnected to the investigation of sex trafficking, Schaaf said.

Making matters more complicated, there have been reports questioning the police department’s investigation of the death of O’Brien’s wife. O’Brien’s wife died in 2014, and although it was investigated as a homicide at first, it was then ruled as a suicide. Family members of O’Brien’s wife, Irma Huerta Lopez, believe that O’Brien was responsible for her death, saying that the evidence didn’t add up.