SAN FRANCISCO (CN) — Civil rights attorneys on Monday asked a federal judge to order Oakland to identify and punish senior police officers who botched internal inquiries into officers’ sexual exploitation of an underage girl, though it was far from clear whether the request will be granted.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson said he will issue an order this week requiring the city to respond to recommendations for reforming its police force, but did not indicate whether he will order additional action from the city. The recommendations came in the June 21 Swanson Report, which slammed the Oakland Police Department’s handling of the sexual misconduct investigation.
“I find myself inspired to continue to be optimistic with the new players, and especially you, Chief,” Henderson told Oakland’s new Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick at the Monday hearing. After the city explained how it plans to address the recommendations, Henderson commented: “From what I’ve seen and heard, Chief Kirkpatrick is capable of providing the necessary moral compass for the department and the city moving forward.”
Allegations that a slew of officers from departments around the Bay Area had sex with the teenage daughter of an Oakland police dispatcher came to light in September 2015 after Oakland Police Officer Brendan O’Brien killed himself and left a suicide note implicating several other Oakland officers.
Twelve officers eventually were disciplined and four prosecuted for crimes involving the girl, who went by the name Celeste Guap, but Oakland police did not conduct a serious investigation until Henderson turned it over to a federal monitor last year.
Henderson put the federal monitor in charge after it became apparent that OPD’s handling of the investigation had violated a 2003 negotiated settlement agreement stemming from the Riders police-abuse scandal, which requires, among other things, that the department tell the district attorney’s office about potential crimes committed by police. Oakland police did not tell prosecutors about the allegations involving Guap, according to the Swanson Report.
Henderson ordered city officials into court a week after the Swanson Report was released last month. He questioned their ability to reform the department under the Riders agreement, in light of the report’s “very troubling conclusions.”
The Riders scandal, which culminated in the civil rights lawsuit Delphine Allen et al. v. City of Oakland, involved four veteran officers who allegedly beat and robbed residents and planted evidence while they patrolled an impoverished neighborhood in West Oakland. Under the 2003 settlement, the city paid nearly $11 million to 119 victims and the court appointed a monitor to oversee reforms within the police department.
The Riders agreement was supposed to last five years with no more than one additional two-year extension. But Henderson extended it several times after Oakland police failed to comply with the reforms, which included reducing officer-involved shootings and racially motivated traffic stops.
By 2015, Oakland police had made significant progress on the reforms, and it looked as if court oversight would end, until it was revealed that the department had mishandled the Guap investigation.
The Swanson Report placed the bulk of the blame on former Police Chief Sean Whent and the scornful attitude he fostered in the department toward victims like Guap, who had worked as a child prostitute.
According to the report, one police investigation was closed after just one week, concluding that no crime had occurred; another ignored key leads in the case and recommended discipline for a single officer.
During their only interview with Guap, investigators told her that her threats to expose O’Brien had driven him to kill himself, prompting her to delete evidence from her cellphone so additional officers wouldn’t hurt themselves. The investigators did not try to stop her, according to the report.
Henderson’s comments Monday came in response to a promise by city officials to “go above and beyond” the report’s recommendations. Those promises include lowering the threshold for notifying the district attorney’s office of potential officer criminal misconduct.
City officials also said they want the officers who mishandled the investigations to help the police comply with the recommendations.
“The city and the department see this review as an opportunity [for the officers] to take ownership for executing the solutions in a way that will effect departmental cultural change,” Deputy City Attorney Kim Bliss told Henderson.
Civil rights attorneys John Burris and James Chanin, who secured the Riders settlement, were not happy with that promise.
“The city wants the people involved in the investigation to be a part of how to create corrective action. We disagree with that,” Burris said after the hearing.
Burris and Chanin want the city to identify which officers prematurely shut down the investigations and “hold them accountable.” The officers were not identified by name in the report.
However, the one-year deadline for disciplining some of them may have passed, a concern the attorneys related to the judge, reiterating concerns they expressed in a July 5 Joint Status Conference Statement.
“We are not looking for retribution or punishment for its own sake,” Chanin told Henderson. “We are looking for a culture of accountability with the Oakland Police Department.”
Henderson commissioned two independent attorneys in February to probe why Oakland police failed to investigate the case properly after Mayor Libby Schaaf’s own investigator failed to interview witnesses or issue any findings.
Schaaf and other city leaders “were actively involved” in overseeing the police investigation after they learned about the allegations, but allowed their probe to stall for months and didn’t press their investigator for answers, according to the Swanson Report.
Schaaf was at the Monday hearing, flanked by Kirkpatrick and City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, but did not address Henderson.
U.S. District Judge William Orrick is to take over the case when Henderson retires in August.