Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf Defends Handling of Police Scandals

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf sat down with KQED Newsroom for an exclusive Bay Area interview about the ongoing police sexual misconduct scandal and other events that have rocked the Oakland Police Department.

In less than two weeks, the department burned through three police chiefs  -- from the sudden resignation of Sean Whent to the sacking of Ben Fairow for unspecified reasons to the departure of Paul Figueroa.

Fairow’s tenure as Oakland’s top cop lasted just six days. Figueroa’s tenure was even shorter -- two days.

“We made decisions that we thought were the best at the moment,” Schaaf said about the swiftness with which she appointed Fairow as interim chief, only to quickly remove him. “I have said that it was a mistake on my part to bring Ben Fairow in without having completely vetted him prior to announcing his appointment.”

Regarding Figueroa’s speedy exit, Schaaf would only say, “His decision to leave his post was personal. He felt he could not perform the duties. That is what his letter said and there is nothing more than that involved.”

Mayor Schaaf has said repeatedly that state privacy laws prevent her from saying more about personnel decisions, but suggested to KQED that there is a lot more than what has been reported in the media.

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“I have been as open and transparent as I'm legally allowed to be, but it is frustrating that the public will never understand all the details,” she said.

For now, Schaaf has put City Administrator Sabrina Landreth in charge of the Police Department as the city conducts a national search for a new chief.

Several community activist groups, including Oakland's Anti Police-Terror Project, have called for an outside agency -- perhaps the U.S. Department of Justice -- to investigate the police scandals. They say they have lost confidence in the Police Department to hold its own accountable and they’re demanding Schaaf’s resignation.

The mayor says she respects the right of protesters to criticize her, but remains defiant.

“I feel very good about every decision that I have made. I feel great about the leadership team around me,” Schaaf said. “I am not planning to resign at this time.”

Meanwhile, the allegations of sexual misconduct involving a teenager who calls herself Celeste Guap have continued to build over the course of several months. There are now at least 14 officers under investigation in the Oakland Police Department alone, while other law enforcement agencies in Richmond and Alameda County have also become implicated.  Oakland is also investigating racist text messages sent by officers.

Although Schaaf says she supports more openness in police personnel files, she stopped short of fully endorsing the idea that they be made public, saying only, “I believe that the public does have a right to know more than they are getting to know right now.”

Like her predecessor Jean Quan, Schaaf adamantly opposes the idea of placing Oakland’s Police Department under federal receivership.

“Oakland residents are best served when the people that they elected to run the city are in fact running it,” Schaaf said. “This is an appropriate time to exert some civilian oversight over the department.”

Read the interview transcript here:

Thuy Vu: When and how did you first learn about the alleged sexual relationships between the Oakland police officers and the teenage sex worker?

Mayor Libby Schaaf: I learned about them in March from the city administrator Sabrina Landreth, but this is a type of incident that I should have been briefed on earlier. That's why we are not just investigating the misconduct but also the investigative process.

Vu: Oakland has had three police chiefs in nine days, and currently has no chief. The city administrator is overseeing the department. Did you have a succession plan in place when you let Chief Sean Whent go?

Schaaf: The fact that Sean Whent went very quickly, that was not anticipated. We made decisions that we thought were the best at the moment. I have said that it was a mistake on my part to bring Ben Fairow in without having completely vetted him prior to announcing his appointment. But I do have confidence in our city administrator. Again, this is an appropriate time to exert some civilian oversight over the department. Also, of the men and women of the Police Department itself. They are just as outraged and disgusted by this scandal as I am.

Vu: Can you tell us why the third chief, Paul Figueroa, quit?

Schaaf: Chief Figueroa submitted his resignation stating that he was unable to perform the duties of the job.

Vu: Did he say why?

Schaaf: He did not go into details and I know that it has been frustrating for the public. Believe me, it's frustrating for me --

Vu: Did you ask him for details?

Schaaf: Can I finish answering your question without interruption?

Vu: Sure.

Schaaf: Thank you. It has been frustrating for the public and it is frustrating for me that state law prohibits the sharing of personnel information of a police officer. That protection extends to the chief. I have been as open and transparent as I'm legally allowed to be, but it is frustrating that the public will never understand all the details.

Vu: Do you think sexual misconduct personnel files should be made available to the public? Currently state law bars it from it being made public.

Schaaf: I believe that there's a lot of room for improvement to the current levels of protection that police officers have to their privacy. I believe that the public does have a right to know more than they are getting to know right now.

Vu: State Sen. Mark Leno now is considering putting forth a measure before voters that would allow that -- give more public access to misconduct and discipline files for law enforcement officers. Is that something you would campaign for?

Schaaf: It's something that I will give careful consideration to, particularly in light of the experience that I have had over the last month.

Vu: We do now have a situation where there are three officers whose reputations have been tarnished in some respects because of this. Do you have any second thoughts about how you handled the situation?

Schaaf: I do things that I believe are in the best long-term interest of the city of Oakland. Sometimes that feels painful in the short term but I always look to the long-term interests of my hometown.

Vu: You speak often about openness and transparency but your office is now investigating who leaked information, particularly to the media. Is that the best way to use resources and time?

Schaaf: Typically the public learns about these types of offenses when someone is arrested or charges are brought. We are still in the middle of this investigation. But because the media has publicized a certain version of events, when we conduct an interview of a witness after that publicity has been released, a lawyer can later use that fact to discredit the testimony of the witness. And that is why we believe it's in the public's interest to not share these types of details about the investigation until it's completed.

Vu: It's become evident that this sexual misconduct had been going on for a while and a lot of people within the department seem to know about it. Yet no one came forth to tell you about it.

Schaaf: I have talked a lot this week about what I believe is a toxic macho culture. That's why it's important we not just look at our recruiting and screening practices -- just at who is becoming a police officer -- but the culture once they’re in the department. A culture of not coming forward and reporting this conduct, that is something that I'm very serious about getting underneath and reforming.

Vu: Some community groups are also calling for your resignation. Your response?

Schaaf: This is a great democracy. I love being an American because people are free to protest, to criticize their elected officials. That is part of the democratic process. I similarly am hearing tremendous amounts of support from the community, who appreciate the stance that I've taken.

Vu: I take then, for the record, you have no plans to resign?

Schaaf: I am not planning to resign at this time, no.

Vu: This scandal comes as the department is still trying to end 13 years of federal monitoring. That's due to the brutality and false police reports that were brought forth in the Riders case. Why should Oakland residents have any confidence that the department's problems can be fixed under your administration?

Schaaf: It is frustrating. I think it is known that we were actually in negotiations around ending the court oversight when this scandal broke. Obviously, this does set back those discussions.

Vu: Do you think that perhaps it's time for the Police Department to be placed under federal receivership? Would the Oakland residents be better served?

Schaaf: No, the Oakland residents are best served when the people that they elected to run the city are in fact running it.

Vu: Looking back over your past year and a half as mayor, especially over the past two weeks, is there anything that you wish you had done differently?

Schaaf: I feel very good about every decision that I have made. We have continued to make our decisions in the best long-term interest of this city and through our values of openness, honesty and integrity. That clarity of vision and commitment has very much helped guide me through these last difficult two weeks, and will continue to guide me in everything I do as the mayor Oakland.

Vu: Mayor of Oakland Libby Schaaf, thank you.

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This post has been updated to include the fact that City Administrator Sabrina Landreth is now in charge of the Police Department as the city conducts a national search for a new chief.