Our Backyard: OPD Needs More Independent Oversight

A new investigative report of police wrongdoing shows Oakland cops can’t be trusted to investigate themselves. And the new chief doesn’t seem to understand that fact.


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Mayor Schaaf addresses the press at City Hall on June 21 with City Administrator Sabrina Landreth (right), Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick (in uniform), and City Attorney Barbara Parker.

Photo by Robert Gammon

A scathing new report by a court-appointed investigator of last year’s sex abuse scandal involving a teenage girl proves beyond doubt that Oakland police are incapable of investigating themselves of wrongdoing. The report by attorney Edward Swanson also makes clear that OPD not only needs more independent oversight, but it also must finally hold cops accountable for badly screwing up the sex abuse case—a fact that new Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick doesn’t seem to comprehend.

Swanson’s report, released today, revealed that Oakland police investigators who were in charge of the initial sex abuse probe involving a young woman who used to go by the name Celeste Guap treated her like a perpetrator rather than a victim of extreme police misconduct. During a face-to-face interview with her in the fall of 2015, OPD officers repeatedly blamed her for the suicide of Officer Brendan O’Brien, with whom she said she had sex while she was still a minor. They also strongly implied that other Oakland cops who had sex with her were might harm themselves as well. They then watched her as she destroyed evidence of her interactions with the officers—texts she had stored on her cellphone.

Shortly after the interview, Oakland police dropped the criminal investigation of sex abuse entirely—without informing the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office of what they had discovered. Then-Police Chief Sean Whent also repeatedly failed to tell Mayor Libby Schaaf, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, and court-appointed police monitor Robert Warshaw what had happened.

A follow-up administrative investigation by OPD’s internal affair division was no better. According to Swanson, the IAD investigator interviewed Guap by phone rather than in person and was “angry” and “frustrated” with her. IAD quickly closed its investigation as well.

In fact, the case didn’t get fully investigated until Warshaw heard about it in March 2016—around the same time that Schaaf and Landreth found out. The mayor and city administrator immediately ordered a new police investigation that ultimately led to 12 officers being disciplined, including four who were terminated. Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley did not learn about the case until she read about it in the East Bay Express. O’Malley filed criminal charges against four OPD officers, along with cops from other jurisdictions. Schaaf also fired Whent last June.

While Swanson praised the subsequent city and DA investigations, he also criticized Landreth and Schaaf for hiring an independent investigator to examine how the case was originally botched but then failing to do anything about the fact that the investigator they hired did essentially nothing. In fact, federal Judge Thelton Henderson appointed Swanson to investigate the matter—at Oakland’s expense—in large part because the city’s probe of the investigation had gone nowhere.

At a City Hall press conference on Wednesday, Schaaf and Landreth declined to acknowledge that the city’s investigation into how OPD had screwed up the case had turned out to be a waste of taxpayer funds. But Schaaf vowed to do better in the future, saying her administration is committed to “constant self-examination and improvement” and would “implement all of [Swanson’s] recommendations.”

Oakland, the mayor said, needs cops who “treat every person, regardless of their background, with absolute respect.”

Swanson’s recommendations include mandatory reporting of serious police misconduct not only to the mayor and city administrator but also to Warshaw. New Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick also said that the head of IAD now reports directly to her. “We’re in the business of regulating other people’s behavior … so we must self-regulate,” she said.

Kirkpatrick, however, seemed unaware of many of the details in Swanson’s report. She also declined to say whether any of the officers who were responsible for mishandling the case would face discipline. She also didn’t seem to realize that she had recently promoted the cop—Roland Holmgren—who appears to have been most responsible for botching the case in the first place. In January, she promoted Holmgren to captain and made him head of OPD’s criminal investigation division—the same division that had originally screwed up the case.

Swanson didn’t identify the cops by name in the report—only by rank. But Guap previously identified Holmgren as the officer who oversaw the interview of her (when cops blamed her for O’Brien’s death).

At the press conference, Kirkpatrick heaped praise on Holmgren as a cop with a “great reputation” and “great character and integrity.” In truth, Holmgren has been involved in numerous police scandals over the years, including the mistreatment of Occupy Oakland protesters.  

Swanson’s report—and Kirkpatrick’s response to it—make it obvious that OPD can’t “self-regulate,” as the chief says. The report revealed plainly that Oakland cops—like those in departments across the country—are far more interested in protecting their own than holding themselves accountable for wrongdoing.

Last November, Oakland residents voted to establish a civilian police commission to oversee the department and investigate misconduct. The commission has yet to get started, but once it does, it will represent a step in the right direction. But it’s not enough: It’s clear that OPD should hand over all investigations of criminal police wrongdoing to an outside agency. As numerous criminal justice experts have noted in recent years, the best solution is to have the state Attorney General’s office handle such cases, because local DAs tend to be closely tied to police as well.

Swanson’s report and Kirkpatrick’s apparent lack of interest in holding cops accountable for screwing up the Guap case are also strong indicators that OPD should also hand over investigations like the one Swanson just completed to an outside, independent agency. Perhaps even the new Oakland civilian police commission.

It seems clear that OPD and the city administration aren’t up to the task.

 

Our Backyard is an occasional column by senior editor Robert Gammon.

     

Published June 21, 2017 at 5:37 PM

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