By Rachel Swan
The unraveling of the Oakland Police Department was sudden and swift, and came on the heels of what should have been a shining moment in the agency's history.
Less than a year ago, the police force was boosting its ranks, embracing new technology and getting accolades from a White House expert on policing. But now, it has all but fallen apart, roiled by scandals involving a teen sex-trafficking victim and racist texts, and the abrupt departure of three bosses in one week.
"I am stunned and profoundly disappointed," Mayor Libby Schaaf said in an interview Saturday, a day after she held a tense news conference to announce the departure of acting Chief Paul Figueroa, who has taken a leave and will return to the police force as a captain, rather than his old job as assistant chief. At the news conference, Schaaf also revealed that Oakland is investigating several officers for sharing racist text messages and emails.
That was just one among many bombshells that have dropped since the beginning of the year, all coming from an agency that seemed to be making improvements and chipping away at Oakland's historically high homicide rate. When the recent misconduct allegations surfaced, Oakland was subject to more scrutiny than perhaps any police department in the nation.
Since 2012, the police force has been under the direct control of a federal judge and court monitor, an arrangement that stems from a 2003 settlement over alleged beatings and corruption by a group of West Oakland police who called themselves the Riders. The city has paid millions for the monitor while hiring numerous consultants to help, including New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton.
Schaaf, who established herself early on as a no-nonsense crime fighter, signaled Friday that she has lost so much faith in Oakland's police force that she no longer trusts it to police itself. She said at the news conference that City Administrator Sabrina Landreth will take the reins while Oakland conducts a national search for a new chief.
"Most people who live in Oakland know that there are real cultural and leadership problems with the Police Department, and Mayor Schaaf tried to change them," said Jim Ross, an Oakland political consultant. "And what's frustrating is it's much harder for her to do that than we will ever know."
Schaaf ran on a platform that emphasized public safety and became a stalwart for the department almost as soon as she took office. She added 40 police jobs in her 2015 budget and promised to increase the force to 800 officers by the end of her term. In July, Schaaf and then-Police Chief Sean Whent traveled to the White House to share Oakland's law enforcement strategies with other agencies. Ron Davis, a former East Palo Alto police chief who in 2014 was named to lead President Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing, hailed Oakland's department as one to emulate in the post-Ferguson era.
"I believe the department fundamentally changed during that time period," Schaaf said. In recent news conferences, the mayor has painstakingly highlighted Oakland's accomplishments -- among them, wide adoption of body cameras, a reduction in use-of-force complaints, and training for officers to overcome implicit bias -- even as she condemned the department's "frat house" culture.
For a while, it seemed that a police department that had suffered through years of dysfunction -- with ever-changing leadership and crippling layoffs between 2009 and 2013 -- finally had strong backing from the city's leaders.
But the mayor has grown increasingly rattled as police disciplinary cases have again started to pile up. The most prominent among them is a growing scandal involving several officers and their dealings with a sexually exploited teenage prostitute. That case has now implicated law enforcement personnel throughout the Bay Area, including a Defense Department employee.
"The exploitation of a victim of human sex trafficking is just profoundly disturbing," Schaaf said. "It undermines everything we've been working so hard on this past year."
The sexual misconduct case and others overshadowed what should have been a period of optimism for Oakland's Police Department and led to the sudden ouster of Whent, its well-liked and highly regarded leader.
"The political leadership in Oakland -- and even the police force leadership -- had a legitimately sincere approach to change," said Peter Keane, a former San Francisco police commissioner and current law professor at Golden Gate University. "But that state of mind did not drift down to the mid-level commanders, captains and lieutenants. There, you still had business as usual, the same negative approach that Oakland police officers have historically been viewed as having."
Keane said the current upheaval shows the difficulty of trying to control a law enforcement culture with an entrenched "cowboy" mentality, where officers have each other's backs and "good cops never blow the whistle on bad cops." He said that mind-set has lingered for generations in Oakland, and only a hard-driving administrator can stamp it out.
Nobody has quite nailed down exactly what caused Oakland's Police Department to fray. Some, like Ross, blame layoffs in past years, which cut out officers who could have formed the department's core leadership today. Others blame a recruitment and hiring spree that started under former Mayor Jean Quan -- many of the officers currently under investigation were hired between 2012 and 2014, before Schaaf took office. Still others blame the command staff, saying it was too permissive and unwilling to crack down on bad behavior by the rank and file.
Some say that macho culture may be an endemic feature of police forces, and that it's up to city leaders to snuff it out.
"This is a national issue, this need to build trust in law enforcement," Schaaf said.
Barry Donelan, who heads the Oakland Police Officers Association, issued a statement Saturday, saying the majority of sworn personnel in Oakland are hardworking, ethical people who are "as disappointed as everyone else" in the allegations made against their colleagues.
But at this point, city officials and experts think change needs to come from outside. Some council members are pushing for a civilian police commission, which they say should have the power to discipline officers and terminate the chief. Jim Chanin and John Burris, plaintiffs' attorneys in the Riders case, want a federal judge to intervene in the hiring and recruitment of officers. Schaaf still hopes to find an "inspired leader" from another city.
Chanin is cautiously optimistic. "Look, nobody said this was going to be pretty," he said. "Part of the reform process is digging through things you wouldn't normally see."
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