Oakland Police Chief Fired After Less Than 1 Week

by | June 16, 2016

By Rachel Swan and Kimberly Veklerov

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf abruptly fired interim Police Chief Ben Fairow on Wednesday, six days after hiring him to replace a chief who resigned amid a sexual misconduct scandal in the department.

Schaaf said she removed Fairow from the top post after she "received information that has caused me to lose confidence in Ben Fairow's ability to lead the Oakland Police Department at this particular moment in time." She said it was a mistake to install him.

"I own the mistake I made, and the important thing is I'm fixing it. I'm fixing it quickly, and I'm not trying to hide," the mayor said at a news conference Wednesday afternoon.

The sudden dismissal highlighted the chaos and uncertainty that has seized City Hall and the Police Department as officials grapple with a bizarre internal investigation that centers on an underage sex worker and her interactions with multiple Oakland police officers and sworn personnel from several other law enforcement agencies.

On Wednesday, the San Francisco Police Department became the latest agency to open an internal investigation into whether its officers had relations with the young woman at the center of the scandal. The Richmond Police Department is also conducting an internal inquiry. Also Wednesday, the Alameda County district attorney's office reported that one of its inspectors had been put on administrative leave in connection with the case.

Whent resigns

Schaaf had named Fairow as the interim chief late last Thursday night after announcing that Police Chief Sean Whent had resigned for personal reasons, and the mayor refused to comment on whether Whent's resignation was connected to the sex scandal.

"With the abrupt resignation of Sean Whent last week, we sought to have seamless leadership of the Oakland Police Department and selected an individual who understood the dynamics in Oakland and who, based on his previous employment with OPD, could hit the ground running," Schaaf said.

On Wednesday, Schaaf said Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa would assume the role of interim chief as the city searches for an outside candidate to lead the department.

Five Oakland police officers were placed on leave as the investigation into the sex worker's dealings continues, and two of those officers resigned in May.

The mayor said Wednesday that her administration was doing a background check of Fairow on Monday when certain information was learned that prompted her decision to fire him. She wouldn't disclose what the information was, citing a state law that requires confidentiality for internal police investigations.

But later Wednesday, BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey issued a public statement saying he welcomed Fairow back to his job, and that Fairow had informed him that he had an extramarital affair more than a decade ago -- "none of which precludes him from serving as a sworn law enforcement officer or as one of my deputy chiefs."

Fairow served for 21 years in Oakland's Police Department before moving to become deputy chief at BART police, where he came under fire last year for the death of Sgt. Tom Smith, who was inadvertently shot by a colleague.

In a federal lawsuit filed in May 2015, Smith's widow, Kellie Smith, who was a BART police officer at the time of the shooting, accused Fairow of denigrating his rank and file and even calling them "pussies" when they asked for additional training.

Fairow could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Schaaf and City Administrator Sabrina Landreth said at the news conference that they are trying to ensure stable leadership over a department that for years has cycled through police chiefs.

"We will take our time to make sure that (whoever) is put in has the complete trust of the rank and file," Landreth said.

But critics say the mayor has concealed the reasons behind Whent's departure and refused to discuss it even with other city officials.

Her silence has infuriated Councilwoman Desley Brooks, who roundly attacked the mayor during a Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday at City Hall.

'3,000 steps backward'

Brooks said that Whent's ouster, coupled with a sex worker's explosive allegations that she had sex with several Oakland officers while she was underage, showed that it's "abundantly clear the administration is unable to look out for the best interests of this city."

Councilman Larry Reid on Wednesday expressed his disenchantment and frustration with the latest sudden leadership change.

"You take 10 steps forward, and then you take 3,000 steps backward," Reid said. "We're going backward, not forward."

The Public Safety Committee is now pondering whether to endorse a November ballot measure that would create a citizen police oversight commission and give it broad powers to discipline officers -- and terminate the chief.

News of Fairow's removal came just hours after civil rights attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin held their own news conference, saying they may ask a federal judge to intervene in hiring and recruitment at the struggling department. The department has been operating under a Negotiated Settlement Agreement and federal oversight requiring it to make improvements since 2003. That year, the city settled a major lawsuit after findings that four officers beat West Oakland residents and planted evidence. Chanin and Burris were the plaintiffs' attorneys in that case.

"Officers should not be involved in consorting with prostitutes and passing a young girl around like she's a rag doll," Burris said at the news conference. "We've come to the conclusion that the supervisors have not done their jobs, that institutional checks and balances were not in place."

Rattled by a spate of disciplinary cases that all involved officers hired after 2013, the city is now conducting an official audit of its recruitment process. Chanin said he wants a non-redacted version of the audit for himself, Burris, the department's independent court monitor, and federal Judge Thelton Henderson, who has overseen the department ever since 2003 -- the year that Oakland settled the lawsuit

'Change in culture'

If Oakland's audit is not released soon or if it seems flimsy, then Burris and Chanin say they will push for a court order that would allow Henderson and his appointed monitor and compliance director to steer the hiring of new police.

"There is undoubtedly a change in culture of Oakland Police Department which cannot be ignored," Burris said.

He and Chanin believe the department's problems stem at least partly from an aggressive effort to boost its ranks, which began under former Mayor Jean Quan, and picked up when Schaaf promised to have 800 police officers in Oakland by the time she leaves office.

"I think there's been a general rush to fill up Oakland with more police officers," Chanin said.

Burris said that one new recruit had been pushed through the academy, even though supervisors knew he had a problem with alcohol abuse.

Schaaf, who has adamantly expressed her disgust over the scandal, said she is determined to "weed out people not morally fit to serve as Oakland police officers."

The scandal spread to other departments after the teen, who uses the alias Celeste Guap, told several media outlets that she had sex with two dozen officers from various agencies..

"It's not enough to say we are going to prosecute these people to the fullest," Burris said. "The real question is how are we going to make sure this does not happen again."

(c)2016 the San Francisco Chronicle