The Sex Scandal Blowing Up Oakland's Police Department

After an 18-year-old sex worker accused more than a dozen cops of sleeping with her, the resulting scandal has seen three police chiefs get fired or quit in the space of a couple weeks.

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Jun 28 2016, 5:00pm

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf stands next to then Oakland police chief Sean Whent in May. Whent has since been forced out of a scandal that threatens to consume the department.(AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

Not so long ago it was possible to point to Oakland as a police reform success story. In the last decade, the cops have gone from conducting an average of 3,000 searches without probable cause every year to 280 in 2015. Officers are now required to wear body cameras. After decades of abuse, violence, and corruption, the police department seemed to finally be changing.

In the last few weeks, though, a scandal has emerged that threatens to tear the department apart. In brief, 14 Oakland police officers are currently under investigation for sleeping with an 18-year-old sex worker—three of them when she was 17, thus allegedly committing rape and sex trafficking under California law. The woman, using the alias Celeste Guap, told the East Bay Express earlier this month that she was having sex with the cops for money and protection; she had been given a friend's arrest history and information about undercover prostitution stings.

Hints of the scandal surfaced last year, after a suicide note written one of the officers involved, Brendan O'Brien, mentioned Guap, prompting an investigation. But the higher-ups allegedly dragged their feet, and the supposed cover-up has only widened the sordid scandal has since expanded. (According to Guap's later comments to the media, she's actually had sex with "more than 30 officers" from multiple agencies around the Bay Area.)

The shocking and salacious events were the catalyst to Oakland appointing four police chiefs in two weeks. Initially, Sean Whent, who was promoted to top cop at the end of a similarly messy 2013 shuffle that saw three new police chiefs in three days, got canned because he allegedly knew about Guap sleeping with Oakland cops but didn't press for a speedy and public investigation.

The second chief, Ben Fairow, was fired after five days on the job after it was revealed he allegedly had an affair while previously working for the department, and possibly engaged in sexual misconduct. The official reasoning, from Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, was that she had lost confidence in his ability to lead. "I feel that this is an appropriate time to place civilian oversight over this police department and to send a very clear message about how serious we are, of not tolerating misconduct, unethical behavior, and to root out what is clearly a toxic, macho culture," Shaaf told the media.

The third chief, Paul Figueroa, resigned days later—neither he nor Schaaf will say why—around the same time it was revealed that there was an ongoing internal investigation into racist text messages and emails circulating among African-American officers.

On Friday, Mayor Shaaf announced that she was putting the department officially under civilian control for the time being—"I am here to run a police department, not a frat house," she said at a press conference. She then named David Downing acting assistant chief. As of now, he still has the job, but it's anticipated he'll retire in six months. He has also allegedly made "racially insensitive" remarks at meetings and was forced out of his last cop job for voiding a traffic ticket given to a subordinate who got into a car accident.

All this comes at the same time of another revelation: An Oakland police detective's girlfriend helped write police reports. The Alameda County District Attorney's office announced Thursday that the detective, Mike Gantt, didn't commit any crimes, though may have violated policy. The DA's office itself has has become embroiled too: It has placed an investigator on administrative leave for his relationship with Guap.

To many, this kind of apparent widespread misconduct feels very familiar. From the 1990s until 2014, Oakland settled 417 police brutality lawsuits for $74 million. Most famously, a group of violent, corrupt cops who called themselves the "Riders" spent the 90s beating up and robbing suspects, and sometimes planting, evidence while they worked a tough neighborhood in West Oakland.

Though they had been praised for their arrest statistics, once the Riders' corruption and violence was revealed by a whistleblower, the scandal consumed the department. People who had been arrested by the Riders sued and in 2003 won a judgement exceeding $10 million after collectively serving 40 years in prison. After the scandal, a "consent decree" resulted in the OPD being monitored by a federal judge. Initially this arrangement was supposed to end in five years—it's now 13 and counting. (Amazingly, some of the Riders have tried to get their jobs back.)

In the time since, Oakland cops have continued to behave violently. Just months after the Riders judgement, cops violently put down anti-Iraq War protests near the Port of Oakland—many of the 57 injured, including stevedores represented by their union, filed suit against the city. The victory resulted in a crowd control policy, also with federal oversight, that the Oakland cops were supposed to adhere to. Though the policy expired in 2007, it was reinstated in 2013 for four more years after several demonstrations were violently broken up by the Oakland cops.

There's no denying that Oakland's Police Department has made improvements since ordered to do so by the federal government. Activists can call them incremental, or minor. But improvement nonetheless. Yet the lurid scandal involving a teenaged sex worker threatens to undo all the perceived progress the city has made.

Residents and the city's politicians who represent them are angry: "It's a big mess, and you don't know when it's going to end," councilman Larry Reid said. "It's like we take 20 steps forward and 3,000 steps back." And as Uber and its tech brethren open new, massive offices and accelerate the city's transforming character—which in nearby San Francisco has meant more fault lines, not unity—it's increasingly a question whether or not the city's police department will change as well. After all, moving fast and breaking things (to quote an old Facebook motto) is what got the department into trouble in the first place.

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