Official: Oakland mayor bungled police sex misconduct probe
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — From the mayor on down, a court-appointed investigator said Wednesday that Oakland city officials mishandled and downplayed sexual misconduct allegations about the city’s police department that turned into a far-reaching scandal.
In a court filing, investigator Ed Swanson put most of the blame for the bungled probe on former police chief Sean Whent, who resigned under pressure last year. Swanson said Whent’s disinterest in the case set the tone for the department.
But Swanson also singled out Mayor Libby Schaaf for failing to monitor the case after she vowed dramatic reforms in the police department.
Schaaf declared in 2016 that her job was to run a “police department, not a frat house” after the teenage daughter of a police dispatcher said several officers exploited her while she was working as a prostitute. Swanson credited the mayor with acting quickly when she was first informed of the scandal and a federal judge ordered an in-depth investigation.
“But after the investigation concluded, the mayor and city administrator did not do enough to determine why the department had not investigated the case more thoroughly before the court got involved,” Swanson wrote. “Although they took the appropriate step of hiring an outside attorney to investigate this issue many months passed with no investigative progress, and there is no evidence city leaders pressed to ensure this troubling and important question was being answered.”
Schaaf said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon that she accepts the report’s conclusions.
She said a Dec. 2 fire that killed three dozen people in a warehouse and the search for a new police chief distracted from the sex misconduct investigation in December and January.
“We agree that tone comes from the top,” said Schaaf, who recently said she’ll seek a second 4-year term as mayor in 2018. “That’s why we set out to find a new chief.”
Schaaf swore in Anne Kirkpatrick as chief on March 1 out of 30 candidates. Kirkpatrick was the second-in-command and in charge of reforming the Chicago Police Department when hired in Oakland.
“It is all repairable,” Kirkpatrick said of the report’s conclusions.
City administrator Sabrina Landreth said she agreed the investigation took too long to conclude, but she said city officials didn’t want to interfere with the criminal prosecutions of the officers.
Four officers were fired and face criminal charges and eight others disciplined.
Swanson was appointed by a federal judge who oversees the troubled department as part of a 2002 settlement of a civil rights lawsuit. Swanson has no authority to order changes in the department, but the judge does. Swanson recommended a number of training reforms and policy changes, including involving the district attorney in internal investigations of officers under criminal suspicion and consulting the city attorney.
The department implemented many court-ordered reforms during Whent’s three years as chief and was close to shedding the court oversight when officer Brendan O’Brien killed himself in 2015. O’Brien in his suicide note denied having sex with the victim despite her claims that he did. O’Brien also implicated several officers who he said had sex with the girl.
“It’s a pretty devastating report,” said lawyer John Burris, who represents the victim and is the lead attorney on the 2002 civil rights case that led to court oversight. “I thought the department was making real progress.”
Swanson said Whent appeared disinterested in the case from the start and his attitude set the tone for the rest of the department.
Whent told investigators that he “misread” O’Brien’s suicide note and a lieutenant’s email message that the case was being sent to internal affairs. Whent said he read the note and the lieutenant’s email but did not grasp their importance, an excuse Swanson called “not credible” in his report.
Whent failed to notify the mayor, district attorney and the federal judge about the suicide note and internal affairs investigation. Swanson said it is unclear why Whent downplayed the case.
The chief retired under pressure in June 2016 after news of the scandal emerged. His phone rang unanswered Wednesday after the report was released.
Swanson also said investigators dismissed the victim’s claims because she was a prostitute.
Criminal investigators initially closed their probe after a strained, two-hour interview with the victim, who gave muddled and conflicting accounts. During that interview, they watched her delete messages on her phone sent by officers.
Swanson’s report also faulted police internal affairs investigators for lackluster work. The victim was interviewed once on the phone. And two officers implicated by the victim were considered witnesses, rather than targets.
One of those officers said he was mentoring the victim to get her out of prostitution, but then admitted he texted her a photograph of his penis.
The city paid the victim almost $1 million to settle her legal claims.