journalist covering the Oakland Police Department scandal for the East Bay Express.
journalist covering the Oakland Police Department scandal for the East Bay Express.
In Oakland, California, a third police chief has resigned in just over a week amid a massive scandal in which multiple Oakland police officers are facing allegations of statutory rape and human trafficking after allegedly having sex with an underage girl who was working as a sex worker. On Friday, interim Police Chief Paul Figueroa resigned from his post for undisclosed reasons after just two days on the job. His predecessor, Ben Fairow, lasted just six days on the job. The string of resignations began when Police Chief Sean Whent resigned on June 9. On Friday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced she would not appoint another acting chief, instead putting the Oakland Police Department under civilian control. We speak to two reporters who helped break the Oakland Police Department sex crimes story. Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston are journalists with the East Bay Express.
AMY GOODMAN: In Oakland, California, a third police chief has resigned in just over a week amidst a massive scandal in which multiple Oakland police officers are facing allegations of statutory rape and human trafficking after allegedly having sex with an underage girl. On Friday, interim Police Chief Paul Figueroa resigned from his post for undisclosed reasons after just two days on the job. His predecessor, Ben Fairow, lasted just six days on the job. The string of resignations began when Police Chief Sean Whent resigned on June 9th. On Friday, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced she would not appoint another acting chief, instead putting the Oakland Police Department under civilian control.
MAYOR LIBBY SCHAAF: As the mayor of Oakland, I am here to run a police department, not a frat house. ... 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. ... I want to assure the citizens of Oakland that we are hell-bent on rooting out this disgusting culture and holding those accountable responsible for their misdeeds.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf. The Associated Press reports, of the 14 Oakland police officers involved in the sex crime scandal, two have resigned, three others are on paid leave. The discovery of the officers’ alleged rape of an underage trafficking victim happened after Oakland police officer Brendan O’Brien left a suicide note mentioning details of a sex trafficking scandal. On Friday afternoon, protesters demonstrated outside the Oakland Police Department headquarters, wrapping red "danger" tape outside the department and posting Megan’s Law warnings to alert the community that there are statutory rapists in their vicinity. Meanwhile, a separate investigation is underway into a string of racist text messages sent by officers within the Oakland Police Department. Oakland Mayor Schaaf addressed the controversy in her Friday news conference.
MAYOR LIBBY SCHAAF: We are close to the end of an investigation of racist text messages. We do think it’s relevant to share that the text messages were sent by African-American officers, but they are wholly inappropriate and not acceptable from anyone who wears the badge of the Oakland Police Department.
AMY GOODMAN: Local broadcaster NBC Bay Area reported the messages contained racial slurs and images of the Ku Klux Klan.
For more, we’re joined by three guests. In San Francisco, California, we’re joined by Cat Brooks. She is an Oakland-based Black Lives Matter activist, co-founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project. Brooks helped organize Friday’s protest against the Oakland Police Department. In Berkeley, we’re joined by two reporters who helped break the Oakland Police Department sex crime story. Darwin BondGraham and Ali Winston are journalists with the East Bay Express.
We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Darwin, let’s begin with you. Just explain, for people who are not in Oakland, in California, who haven’t been following this story. In nine days, you have three police chiefs who resigned amidst this sex scandal. Explain. Sean Whent, Ben Fairow, Paul Figueroa—who are they? What was their involvement?
DARWIN BONDGRAHAM: Yeah, the police chiefs resigned, partly because there appears to have been a wide-ranging cover-up of the sex crimes scandal and misconduct. It was discovered, as you said earlier, when police officer Brendan O’Brien committed suicide last year. He named other officers in his suicide note. An Internal Affairs investigation into the sex crimes was opened, but then it appears to have been quashed at some point in time. It’s unclear who in the department covered up this investigation, but the cover-up implicates Chief Whent, so Whent resigned. The appointment of Fairow lasted very briefly, because it appears that it’s very difficult in the Bay Area to find a police leader who doesn’t have some sort of background, troubling background, involving similar kinds of allegations. So Fairow left. Then we had acting Chief Paul Figueroa for a very brief period of time. But at this point, the actual details of what occurred are still not known. There’s a lot of reporting that still needs to be done.
AMY GOODMAN: Ali Winston, tell us who Brendan O’Brien was, the man who committed suicide, the suicide note revealing this. What happened to him? What was his involvement? And who the young woman is that we are talking about?
ALI WINSTON: Brendan O’Brien was a San Francisco native, grew up in a family that had ties to law enforcement in the area. He was about 30 years old when he killed himself in September 2015. He had served overseas. He was a military veteran, had a diagnosed history of PTSD and depression. He and his wife, Irma Huerta Lopez, had had some previous trouble. They had a very quick, brief marriage, which ended when she killed herself, allegedly, in June 2014. Her death—she died from two gunshots to the head—was initially investigated as a homicide by the Oakland Police Department. That is actually a main reason why we started looking into this story months ago. Her death—people told us that her death was extremely suspicious and was probably not being investigated appropriately. It still remains unclear whether she was or wasn’t murdered. The police—the sheriff’s department ruled it a suicide, but we have asked for the full case file. We’re still waiting for it from the city. But Brendan—
AMY GOODMAN: Her family members are alleging that Brendan O’Brien might have killed her, the police officer who then committed suicide?
DARWIN BONDGRAHAM: Right.
ALI WINSTON: That’s right. They are highly suspicious of it. They believe that the police department did not conduct a thorough investigation. They believe that Irma’s death was brushed under the rug.
Brendan, after he—allegedly, after his wife died, at some point in February, he met the young woman at the center of this whole scandal. She was underage at the time. She was 17. She was—she was on East 14th Street, a stretch of East Oakland known for prostitution. She was out there running away from her pimp, and Brendan contacted her. The girl told us that Brendan saved her. And they struck up a—they exchanged numbers. She saw him again after another arrest that he made down on that same stretch of East Oakland. And in her words, they began dating, which is problematic for Brendan, because as a police officer in Oakland, they have extensive training on how to deal with what’s called sexually exploited minors, underage sex workers who are oftentimes coerced into that line of work. Brendan never reported her to the—he never detained her, never turned her over to social services as he is required to do per his training. And instead, you know, they began a sexual relationship.
And Brendan introduced her to other members of his squad out of the Eastmont station. And she slept with them, as well, while she was underage. In some cases, she would receive information about undercover sting operations, prostitution stings, from some of these officers, who would tell her, "Look, it’s going to be hot on this stretch of East Oakland tonight. Stay off Fruitvale. Stay off East 14th from this time to this time. You’ll be cool otherwise," which is a very dangerous thing to do for both officer safety and for the safety of people out there in the public during these operations.
AMY GOODMAN: And her name that you refer to her by is Celeste Guap, but that is not her real name?
DARWIN BONDGRAHAM: Yeah, that’s not her real name. And we’re—we’ve made a purposeful effort not to disclose her real name or actually focus too much of the story on her at this point, because we believe the story mainly is about the police officers and the leadership in the police department, and perhaps other officers who had knowledge that this was occurring and who may have engaged in a cover-up.
AMY GOODMAN: In an interview on Friday, KPIX 5 talked to the young woman at the center of the sex scandal that has roiled the Oakland Police Department.
CELESTE GUAP: No, I have no negative feelings towards any of them. And now, thinking back at it, like, I thought, "Oh, wow, they care about me." Thinking back at it, yeah, you know, I do see myself as being a victim, because I just feel I was taken advantage of.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Darwin BondGraham, what happened next? How has this broken wide open? And now the police department will no longer be headed by a police—by police, but by civilians.
DARWIN BONDGRAHAM: Well, Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that the police chief, Sean Whent, was leaving. This was a very abrupt announcement. We actually heard about Sean Whent being fired before the announcement was made. We decided that it was important to get the full story out there, so we told that full story. The evening that Sean Whent was fired, we put out an article that basically explained to our readers what actually happened, because the Mayor Schaaf claim that Sean Whent was leaving the department, that it was his personal choice to leave the department, and very few details about the sex crime investigation were released, so we decided to explain to the public what really happened, which is the independent monitor, who is an official appointed by a federal court to oversee the Oakland Police Department—see, the Oakland Police Department has been under a federal reform effort for about 13 years now, a consent decree. So this monitor who is in charge of that 13-year-old effort essentially fired Chief Whent, because Chief Whent apparently knew that his wife had contacted Celeste Guap back in June of 2015 and had learned that this girl was, quote-unquote, "dating" an Oakland police officer. So there’s some question as to what knowledge Chief Whent had and when. So he was fired by the court monitor, who was very upset, who appears to have seen that there was some sort of cover-up going on in the department.
So, after Chief Whent was fired, of course, we cycled through two other police chiefs. The most recent thing here is that the city administrator, Sabrina Landreth, was appointed to run the police department. There was some question as to whether or not a city administrator can actually run a police department, whether you have to be a sworn officer to oversee the police. It does appear that it’s OK, that because Oakland is a charter city and its own laws say that the city administrator runs the departments, that she can do this. But right now Oakland essentially has no police chief. The police chief in Oakland is David Downing, who until recently was—what was he?
ALI WINSTON: He’s Concord police. He left Oakland PD a few years ago, went to Concord, got drummed out of that department because of a ticket-fixing scandal. Essentially, Amy, the situation in Oakland is that there’s dirt on almost everybody in the command structure.
DARWIN BONDGRAHAM: Yeah, you really can’t appoint anyone from the Oakland police leadership who doesn’t have some baggage. And a lot of people in the police department right now are coming forward with those secrets. And it’s—you know, we likened it to Game of Thrones, because there’s a lot of people backstabbing each other right now.
ALI WINSTON: Yeah.