Judge Slams Oakland Officials' Handling of Police Sex Scandal

by | July 11, 2017

By Kimberly Veklerov

The federal judge overseeing reforms in the Oakland Police Department criticized city officials Monday for a "severely mishandled" investigation into officers who allegedly had sex with an underage girl, saying City Hall and police commanders appeared to be treating him as an "inconvenient bump" on the way to regaining full control of the force.

But U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson, who ordered the reforms in 2003 in response to allegations that officers had brutalized suspects, stopped short of stripping the city of further control of the Police Department for the way the sex-scandal investigation played out.

"We're still not finished with this case after 14 years," Henderson said in a hearing in San Francisco, the first major court proceeding on the mandated reforms in five years. "These are not arbitrary orders we're trying to enforce. ... I'm not just an inconvenient bump on the way to a settlement."

The hearing, attended by Mayor Libby Schaaf, Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, City Council members and police command staff, focused on the findings last month by a pair of court-appointed attorneys who sharply criticized the department for its handling of allegations that officers had sex with the teenage daughter of an Oakland police dispatcher.

The attorneys said in their report that Police Department supervisors and detectives had done little to investigate the charges, and instead had blamed the young woman and allowed her to delete phone evidence in their presence. They also didn't tell the mayor, city administrator or Alameda County prosecutors about the accusations, the attorneys found.

Informing the district attorney's office when there's a reasonable suspicion of criminal conduct by police officers was one of the reforms city leaders agreed to make years ago as part of a lawsuit settlement.

The report also said that Schaaf and City Administrator Sabrina Landreth hadn't done enough to review the Police Department's handling of the case after the accusations finally came to their attention.

The case centered on a sexually exploited young woman who went by the pseudonym Celeste Guap, who told reporters that she had sex with 29 law enforcement officers in several Bay Area agencies. Twelve Oakland officers were ultimately disciplined, and prosecutors filed criminal charges against four of them.

Kimberly Bliss, a city attorney who counsels the police force, said in court Monday that department leaders would hold a "critical incident review" in response to last month's report and would take "corrective action," such as counseling and training. The Police Department will make a number of other changes, she said, including lowering the threshold for misconduct that must be reported to the district attorney.

Kirkpatrick apologized in court to Henderson. She came to Oakland from Chicago and took command in February, after the case became public, but promoted or kept on her command staff some officers whose actions were called into question by the review.

"I'm not only committed to repairing the failings of the sex scandal, but I am committed to compliance and a sustainable future," Kirkpatrick said. "I will answer to my decisions and my actions, and where there's a failing I will own it."

Henderson praised the chief and expressed optimism about the department's future. He said he would issue an order this week requiring the city to explain how it will implement the court-appointed attorneys' recommendations.

That appeared to signal that he wouldn't take up more drastic suggestions made last week by John Burris and Jim Chanin, the attorneys who brought the original lawsuit that led to the ordered reforms. They had said Henderson should consider holding Oakland officials in contempt of court, issuing monetary sanctions against the city or placing the police force into full receivership.

The attorneys said Monday that the self-evaluation city leaders promised wouldn't result in the housecleaning the police command staff needs.

"They shouldn't be in positions of leadership," Burris said of police officials outside court. "Who's to say they won't do it again?"

Henderson is set to retire Aug. 11, when U.S. District Judge William Orrick III will take up the case. Orrick, who was in court for Monday's hearing, said he would hold another status conference in the next three months to review the city's progress.

The police force has been under the supervision of Henderson and his appointed monitors as part of the settlement of a lawsuit stemming from allegations that a group of officers in West Oakland beat and framed suspects. The decree mandated dozens of reforms related to police use of force, discipline, training and internal affairs.

As of Monday, the Oakland city attorney's office alone had spent more than $14 million related to the federal civil rights case. That figure doesn't include money paid to court-appointed monitors or new equipment and software purchased by the Police Department in response to the case.

The Police Department remains under federal court oversight because it has yet to complete several of the reforms, such as eliminating racial bias in traffic stops. There was no estimated date for the department to emerge from court monitoring even before the sex scandal, although lawyers on both sides said the end had been in sight before the new allegations arose.

(c)2017 the San Francisco Chronicle