A Department in Crisis: Yet Another Oakland Police Chief Removed

(L-R) Former Oakland police chiefs Sean Whent, Ben Fairow and Paul Figueroa. (Alex Emslie/KQED, BART, OPD)

In eight days, Oakland has shattered its previous record and burned through three police chiefs. The city's also seen several extreme cases of police misconduct come to light.

The latest department head, former Assistant Chief and short-lived interim Chief Paul Figueroa has left the post.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf began a Friday evening press conference to address the continued shakeup with this: "I am here to run a police department and not a frat house."

And she dropped another bomb. A group of OPD officers are now under investigation for swapping racist text messages in a new scandal unrelated to those involving illicit sex or the sharing of confidential murder case files.

"We do think it’s relevant to share that the text messages were sent by African-American officers," Schaaf said, "but they are wholly inappropriate and not acceptable from anyone who wears the badge."

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Schaaf said Figueroa was taking a leave and would return at the rank of captain -- by his own choice. Figueroa did not answer his cellphone Friday evening.

OPD observers were gobsmacked.

"Shocking and stunning again," civil rights attorney John Burris said Friday night. "I’m stunned about the rapid turnover among chiefs and the topsy-turvy nature of what’s going on in Oakland now."

Schaaf said she would not pick another acting chief and instead put City Administrator Sabrina Landreth at the head of the OPD.

"I feel 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 about not tolerating misconduct, unethical behavior, and to root out what is clearly a toxic, macho culture," Schaaf said.

Former OPD Chief Howard Jordan wasn't sure a civilian was allowed to command a municipal police department in California, he said in an emailed response Friday night, and Landreth's appointment could jeopardize OPD's state accreditation.

The game of "pick-the-chief" started last Thursday night with Sean Whent's sudden resignation delivered via email. Whent said simply that he believed "the timing was right for me to move on and explore other opportunities."

That timing was right in the middle of a growing scandal percolating beneath the surface of a department that, to the casual observer, looked to be model for a new era of policing, thanks in part to 13 years of strict federal oversight.

"I want to caution you about the timing of all of this," Jordan told KQED Friday afternoon, before Figueroa's sudden departure. "This was something that was coming, and outwardly, the appearance was that the department was on the right track. But inwardly there's been a lot of concerns about what we're seeing today."

Former OPD Chief Howard Jordan on the state of his former Police Department.

Whent left amid news that numerous Oakland officers had relationships with a young woman who worked in the sex trade, and some officers may have had sex with her before she turned 18.

Mayor Schaff then named former OPD Captain and current BART Police Deputy Chief Ben Fairow to lead the department in an interim capacity while the city conducted a search for an outsider. Five days later, Fairow was suddenly out.

Schaff said she made a mistake and new information prompted her to rethink Fairow's appointment.

"The important thing is that I’m fixing it," she said. "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.”

But she cited state law privacy protections for police officers in declining to state why she felt Fairow was unfit to lead the police department.

"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,” Schaff said when she announced Fairow's ouster and the appointment of Paul Figueroa as interim chief.

BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey offered a possible explanation: He said Fairow had disclosed an extramarital affair that had taken place a decade ago. Rainey welcomed Fairow back to the BART Police Department.

The East Bay Express, which has led coverage of Oakland Police Department's sordid controversies, reported that an OPD homicide investigator had become the subject of a criminal investigation for allegedly sharing confidential details of murder cases.

Civil rights attorney John Burris, whose lawsuit with co-attorney Jim Chanin brought the OPD under federal oversight in 2003, said he wasn't considering moving for a full federal takeover, called "receivership."

"Not yet, not yet, not yet," he said. "But we will if it becomes necessary."