Oakland Mayor Fires OPD's Interim Chief -- After Five Days on Job

Deposed Oakland interim Police Chief Ben Fairow. (BART via YouTube)

Updated 6:15 p.m.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf announced the "immediate removal" of interim Police Chief Ben Fairow after just five days on the job. The mayor said in a statement and reiterated in a press conference Wednesday afternoon that she made the move after information came to light that "caused me to lose confidence" in Fairow's ability to lead the department.

Fairow, a former Oakland police captain who had been serving as deputy chief of BART's police force and was "on loan" from the transit agency, was appointed Thursday night when Chief Sean Whent resigned. Whent's departure is reportedly due to his handling of a scandal surrounding at least half a dozen Oakland police officers and their sexual involvement with a teenage prostitute.

In a City Hall press conference, Schaaf repeatedly deflected questions about what information had surfaced to impeach Fairow by citing constraints imposed by state law.

But BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey offered a potential explanation Wednesday night announcing, "The BART Police Department welcomes back Deputy Chief Ben Fairow."

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"Ben has shared information with me that, while he was married, he had a personal relationship with a consenting adult more than a decade ago, none of which precludes him from serving as a sworn law enforcement officer or as one of my Deputy Chiefs," Rainey said in a written statement.

Schaaf told reporters earlier Wednesday that no full background investigation had been conducted before Fairow was appointed and that the vetting process involved only "brief interviews" conducted in her office. She added that Robert Warshaw, the court-appointed official monitoring the Police Department's compliance with reforms mandated by its 2003 settlement of a civil rights lawsuit, had concurred in the choice of Fairow.

"Chief Fairow is someone I have personally worked with for many years," Schaaf told reporters. "He enjoys a very good reputation, and we were in the process of doing a more formal background check process. But that became unnecessary due to my decision yesterday."

In answer to a question from KRON's Dan Kerman about how Fairow's rapid removal reflected on her leadership and decision-making, she said that she was owning her mistake.

"The important thing is that I'm fixing it, I'm fixing it quickly, and I'm not trying to hide or not disclose what I'm doing or why I'm doing it," Schaaf said.

Schaaf has selected an assistant police chief, Paul Figueroa, to serve as acting chief of the department -- the OPD's sixth permanent, interim or acting chief since 2009.

The mayor said Figueroa's short-term appointment was designed to allow time for "a more appropriate" search for an interim chief, who will be in place while the city continues a nationwide search for a permanent chief. The interim chief, she said, will be someone from outside the department.

"I want to take some time to make the best interim move, because the leadership of this department at this moment in time is very important," Schaaf said.

Speaking of the sexual misconduct scandal embroiling the department, she added: "We are dealing with disgusting allegations that upset me greatly, and I believe that the leadership at this time is critical in order to build confidence that the culture of this department does not tolerate unethical behavior, sexual misconduct or lying."

Schaaf reiterated that theme when asked about the scandal, in which one officer has committed suicide, two have resigned and three others have been placed on leave because of allegations they were involved with a teenage girl who reportedly worked as a prostitute in Oakland and Richmond. Some of the encounters are said to have taken place before the girl turned 18 last August.

The East Bay Express reported last week that Chief Whent was pushed out because he mishandled the case. Schaaf has characterized Whent's departure as voluntary.

Two civil rights attorneys who brought the lawsuit that landed OPD in the oversight of federal Judge Thelton Henderson in 2003 said Wednesday that they are considering pushing for expanding Henderson and Federal Monitor Warshaw’s control over the department.

John Burris and Jim Chanin said they’re considering filing a motion to create a “limited form” of federal receivership, and take control of recruitment, hiring and training out of OPD’s hands, both noting that most if not all OPD officers under investigation are recent hires.

“This is stunning because we’re talking about officers essentially being ‘Sir Galahad’ in the day time and sexual predators in the evening,” Burris said. “They should not be involved in illegal activity, and they should not be passing a young girl around like she was a rag doll.”

Asked about her personal feelings on the case and the department's alleged role, Schaaf said she's determined to make sure the Police Department's culture "does not tolerate immoral behavior, bad judgment, disrespect -- and certainly does not tolerate the victimization of sexually exploited minors. I hope people feel how important this is to me. It is disgusting and disturbing that this type of behavior could go on or be tolerated, and that is something I am very committed to rooting out as well as holding people accountable who engaged in it."

Schaaf said that Fairow "was very professional in his understanding of the situation and my decision."

Wednesday morning, the East Bay Times published a story headlined "New Oakland police chief called a 'straight arrow.'"

The piece briefly details Fairow's OPD career and quotes his former boss, retired Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan, who quit the job with no notice in 2013:

During his days at OPD, Fairow was among a group of officers who called themselves the "other commanders" and pushed for department reforms, including cameras in interview rooms and better management of confidential informants, said former police Chief Howard Jordan.

"We felt we were the younger, more progressive group, and the older, more senior command officers were sort of old school," said Jordan, who has known Fairow for more than two decades.

Fairow's work earned him a department nickname.

"'Straight as an Arrow' Fairow, he does things by the book and is not afraid to make tough decisions," Jordan said. "If he makes a mistake, he will be the first to admit it.".

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Here's the full text of Schaaf's statement:

Oakland, CA — Mayor Libby Schaaf today announced the immediate removal of Interim Police Chief Ben Fairow.

“With the abrupt resignation of Sean Whent last week, we sought to have seamless leadership of the Oakland Police Department and selected an individual who understood the dynamics in Oakland and who, based on his previous employment with OPD, could hit the ground running.

However, I have just received information that has caused me to lose confidence in Ben Fairow’s ability to lead the Oakland Police Department at this particular moment in time. OPD staff, members of our community and City leadership deserve to have complete trust and confidence in our Chief, especially during this critical transition.

State law prohibits me from further elaborating on the specific factors that led to this decision.

I made the decision to appoint Ben Fairow, I also own the decision to remove him. I firmly believe that when you make a mistake, you need to own it, and act quickly to correct it.

I appreciate Ben’s willingness to come to the aid of our city, and regret that his appointment was not the right decision.

In the short term, Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa will temporarily serve as Acting Police Chief effective immediately while we identify an Interim Chief and conduct a national search to fill the role of Chief permanently.

I know that the vast majority of the men and women of the Oakland Police Department are dedicated public servants whose efforts have moved this department forward and made Oakland safer.

I recognize the impact that this chain of events may have on the Department and how it may shake the public trust, but I am committed to ensuring the long-term health, stability and effectiveness of the Oakland Police Department. This is what must be done to achieve that goal.”

Mayor Libby Schaaf will be available to answer questions from the media at 2 pm today in City Hall, Mayor’s conference room.

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