Longtime OPD Critic Shocked by Chief's Resignation

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Sean Whent is said to have been forced out in the wake of questions about department’s handling of sexual misconduct case. (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

The sudden resignation of Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent is a shocking development, says John Burris, the civil rights attorney and lead lawyer in a settlement that prompted federal oversight of mandated reforms at the Oakland Police Department.

"This comes as a complete surprise," Burris said in an interview Friday morning, hours after Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that Whent would be stepping down.

Burris met with Whent earlier this week to discuss the department's progress in accomplishing reforms from the Riders settlement -- the long-running agreement stemming from a police misconduct case in which officers (known as the "Riders") were found to have abused suspects and violated their civil rights.

Burris said the chief and his command staff were supportive of those reforms.


"He was clearly on board in making progress and moving it forward," said Burris.

But new concerns recently emerged about the department's handling of a case involving several officers who reportedly had sex with the teenage daughter of a police dispatcher, and the suicide of one of those officers.

"I certainly believe that the investigations that were taking place, although we were not privy to all of them, were significant and they raise real questions about what the chief knew and when did he know it," Burris said.

The department's ability to complete all of reforms from the Riders settlement will now lay on the shoulders of the next chief, which could slow the progress down, Burris said.

Whent took over in 2013 as interim chief shortly after then-police chief Howard Jordan resigned and after Anthony Toribio spent two days as acting police chief. That change came less than three years after Anthony Batts stepped down as head of the department.

Burris said it's unsettling for the agency's rank-and-file to have so many chiefs during a five-year span.

"The constant change in leadership to me has a detrimental impact upon sustainability of procedures, policies, the morale of the officers," Burris said. "It becomes unpredictable."

The next police chief should have experience with reform and should understand how to battle problems like implicit bias and racial profiling, as well as how to improve the way the department uses force and interacts with mentally ill people, Burris said.

The person who leads the department next should have "some experience with some of these modern-day issues because we are moving into an era of what they call re-engineering in policing," Burris said. "You want somebody who understands these concepts and are prepared to bring them to Oakland."