The Oakland Police Department is no stranger to controversy. The department has earned its fair share of negative headlines over the years including the murder of Oscar Grant in 2009 who was shot in the back by a BART officer. Between 2001 and 2011 the Department allegedly paid out $57 million to settle misconduct claims, lawsuits and settlements. Approximately $11 million of that money was paid in connection with the 2003 Consent Decree, when the Oakland PD paid to settle approximately 120 allegations that a group of officers, known as the Rough Riders, violated the civil rights of the plaintiffs. Officers with nicknames like ‘Batman’ and ‘Choker’ were accused of beating suspects, planting evidence, and manufactured evidence. After the ‘Rough Riders’ consent decree the department was forced to provide an independent monitor with reports regarding wide ranging departmental reforms. As recently as April 2015 news outlets were reporting the Oakland PD, once accused of being among the worst police departments in the country, appeared to be getting it together and turning their department around.
Appearances can be deceiving.
Oakland PD has now gone through three police chiefs in 14 days. The reasons for the rapid succession is murky at best. In early June Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Sean Wehnt was leaving the department for “personal reasons”. Ban Fairow, Wehnt’s replacement who lasted just 5 days on the job, was removed because of a piece of information that allegedly caused Schaaf to lose confidence in him. The New York Times reported that information may have been related to an affair Fairow had years ago. Paul Figuroa lasted a mere two days before publicly announcing he was “unable to fulfill the functions of acting chief of police”. Thus far no additional explanations have been forth coming. The department is currently being run by the City Administrator, a non-law enforcement official.
So what’s at the root of all this? Its not clear. Fairow and Figuroa’s departures, thus far, remain unexplained. Wehnt, well, there might be an explanation there. And here is where the story gets complicated.
Enter Celeste Guap and Brendan O’Brien.
Brendan O’Brien was an Oakland PD officer who shot himself on September 25, 2015. O’Brien’s wife, Irma Lopez, committed suicide a little over a year earlier in June 2014. Maybe. While Lopez’s death was ruled a suicide her family claims she was killed by O’Brien. In support of this argument Lopez’s family points out that two bullets were found at the scene of Lopez’s death, the bullet that killed her as well as one in the wall of the couple’s apartment. According to a May 2016 report video surveillance corroborated O’Brien’s alibi that he was on a convenience store at the time of his wife’s death. Convenient?
O’Brien left a suicide note. That note doesn’t shed any light on the allegations surrounding his wife’s death. However the note apparently acknowledged O’Brien had been involved in a sexual relationship with Celeste Guap. ‘Apparently’ because the note has not been released to the public, snipets about it have been leaked to media. [On a side note, the Oakland Police Department is reported to have hired a private investigator to figure out who is leaking this and other information to the press. Apparently someone either in the Oakland City Hall or the Police Department thinks that in the midst of a scandal the most important thing to figure out is the identity of those helping to expose the scandal, presumably so they can put a stop to it.]
Who is Celeste Guap? Celeste Guap is not her real name – its a nickname. According to reports she is the daughter of an Oakland Police Department dispatcher. Who happens to have turned 18 in August 2015. [Pay attention, that date is going to get important soon.] Guap reportedly met O’Brien in February 2015 when she was running from a pimp who was chasing her down International Boulevard in Oakland. According to Guap, she and O’Brien started ‘dating’ a few weeks later. ‘Dating’ is a street term for john/prostitute relationship – sex for money. In other words when Guap was 17 years old. That’s a violation of Penal Code section 261.5, statutory rape, its prostiuttion, also illegal, and probably violates California Penal Code section 236.1(c), sex trafficking involving a minor.
Guap has been speaking publicly about her relationship with O’Brien and other members of the Oakland Police Department. Others? Yes. Guap says she has had sex with as many as 30 Oakland Police Department officers. According to an interview that aired on ABC7 she would receive texts from Oakland PD officers saying they were cops and wanted to ‘meet’ her. True? Quite possibly. Two Oakland Police Department officers have resigned, additional officers are on administrative leave, and there are reports that at least six other area police departments are conducting related investigations. The East Bay Express reported at least 14 officers allegedly had sex with Guap.
The Rough Riders Consent Decree
In addition to paying out millions of dollars, the consent decree required Oakland PD to institute a number of departmental reforms. 51 specific changes to be exact. Federal district court judge Shelton Henderson was in charge of monitoring the case and complaince with the consent decree. Judge Henderson appointed Robert Warshaw to monitor the department’s compliance. Warshaw, a former police chief in New York state, reported in 2012 the department was reverting to its past bad practices when it came to things like identifying and tracking problem prone officers. Judge Henderson cited other concerns:
According to a quarterly report, reform monitors took a random sample of police reports of 80 incidents from the first three months of this year and found 215 officers had pointed their firearms. The majority of incidents were justified, the monitors said, but they found that in 28 percent of the cases, officers’ use of firearms was inappropriate and unnecessary. The monitors were also concerned that none of the supervisors reading over the officers’ reports raised questions about the events.
So while Oakland PD appeared to be on the road to improvement, just over a quarter of the time they pulled their weapons it was unnecessary and inappropriate. Frontline reported that in connection with this report in October 2011 Warshaw wrote he was concerned with the department’s “…stagnation – and now, reversal – in achieving compliance.” Little did he know that his words were the harbinger of things to come.
How does this pertain to Wehnt’s resignation?
All signs seem to point to that fact he knew O’Brien was involved with Guap. The details are murky. It appears that in March of this year Warshaw learned Wehnt hadn’t informed Warshaw’s office about the internal investigation caused by O’Brien’s suicide note revelation of his inappropriate and illegal relationship with Guap. Wehnt’s failure to inform Warshaw violated the terms of the consent decree because, among other things, the Oakland Police Department was required to inform the monitor of all internal investigations.
On March 23, 2016 Judge Henderson ordered the internal investigation into O’Brien’s suicide and the related sexual misconduct allegations be turned over to Warshaw’s office.
Once Warshaw’s office got involved in the investigation the facts continued to get stranger. Perhaps most strange was the revelation that Julia Wenht, Chief Sean Wehnt’s wife, had been communicating with Celeste Guap on Facebook since June 2015. Remember, O’Brien committed suicide in September 2015. Guap says she told Julia Wehnt about her relationship with O’Brien some three months before O’Brien’s suicide. As Leon Neyfakh of Slate.com asked, “Why was Wehnt’s wife talking to Guap on Facebook?” No one knows. And no one knows how Julia Wehnt knew about Celeste Guap and what, if anything, she told her husband. And if Wehnt did know about O’Brien and Guap, how come the internal investigation didn’t start until after O’Brien’s suicide?
What Does All This Mean?
Well for Oakland it means the Police Department has problems, big problems. It would appear the Chief of Police had something to hide and he knew it. Until earlier this month Wehnt was the great reformer of the Oakland PD – he’d made his reputation by working his way up Oakland’s Internal Affairs Division. If this was all about one officer having an illegal relationship with a minor, Wehnt wouldn’t have had anything to hide. He could have fired O’Brien, recommended to the DA that O’Brien be prosecuted and that would have been that. It appears Wehnt knew, or at least suspected, this involved more than one officer. Why else risk the wrath of the federal monitor and a district court judge that, prior to this, had threatened to put the Oakland Police Department into a federal receivership. A receivership similar to the one the California Department of Corrections has found itself dealing with for years due to its persistent and pervasive deprivation of the constitutional rights of those they are charged to house and yes, care for.
It doesn’t take too much of an imagination to foresee a myriad of criminal charges; corruption, allegations of honest services fraud, sex crimes, criminal violations of civil rights laws or other federal criminal charges being brought against former and current Oakland PD officers.
The bigger issue is that the Oakland Police Department exemplifies the problems with policing that seem to permeate departments across the country. Police are supposed to make communities safer. And there are probably lots of police officers across the country who do that every day. But there’s an alarmingly large number of officers who are doing the opposite, they’re committing crimes and hiding behind their badges, their departments and the loyalty of their fellow officers. Stories about Oakland PD, Cleveland PD, Ferguson feed the growing distrust many Americans feel towards those who have taken vows to ‘protect and serve’.
The United States is based on the rule of law – the principle that laws govern the nation, not arbitrary decisions of government officials. Police officers are supposed to assist in the implementation of the rule of law. Yet the Oakland Police Department, and departments across the country, are the anthesis of the rule of law.
In her recent dissent in Utah v. Strife Justice Sotomayor bemoaned the Supreme Court’s acceptance of law enforcement overreach and warned of its consequences:
By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.
We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274–283 (2002). They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.
Justice Sotomayor is the only justice on the Supreme Court with a criminal law background – she was a prosecutor for many years. She is the only justice on the high court who has a street level view of both the good and the bad law enforcement can do. It may well also be she is the only justice with an accurate view of just how big the chasm between law enforcement and those they’ve sworn to serve has become.
The line between law enforcement and the citizenry is increasingly defined as ‘us verses them’. Distrust of law enforcement, once something that was pervasive only in poor and crime ridden neighborhoods is ever more main stream. Certainly there are good law enforcement officers out there – probably the majority of them – but how are the rest of us supposed to know a good one from a bad one? And, when our Supreme Court, the institution who exists for no reason other than the preservation of our constitutional rights, rubber stamps police misconduct how do we redress our grievances?
We need a national re-thinking of the institution of law enforcement. Of what we expect law enforcement to do and how we expect them to do it. An effective national re-think of the institution of law enforcement has to include changes to policies and practices. Officers need to live in the communities they serve. They need to be a part of the local consciousness. They need to be seen taking their kids to little league and shopping at the local market. Instead of being trained to use military grade weapons they need to learn how to talk and how to listen to people. Understand what is going on in the communities they serve and how to help – not just how to arrest people. The macho warrior-like culture of law enforcement that tolerates racism and bias has to be replaced with officers who understand and appreciate what it means to ‘protect and serve’.