Oakland Police Sexual Exploitation Case at Center of Looming Legal Showdown

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Oakland Police Department headquarters on Nov. 12, 2016. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

Lawyers involved in federal court oversight of the Oakland Police Department are calling for a detailed accounting of failures and disciplinary action taken against officers and supervisors tasked with investigating a police sexual exploitation case that has rocked the department for over a year.

If the city fails to comply with that and other reforms in a long-standing negotiated settlement agreement, the court should consider holding officials in contempt, civil rights attorneys John Burris and Jim Chanin wrote in a joint filing that stakes out opposing stances on the status of court-ordered reforms and Oakland's ability to maintain them if the now 14 years of court oversight were to ever end.

"The contempt process has the advantage of punishing the actual party causing the problem, rather than punishing others who are associated with him/them through no fault of their own," the attorneys' statement says. "It is time that officials of the City of Oakland took responsibility for the completion of the Negotiated Settlement Agreement and are held accountable for their failure to comply with an agreement that should have been resolved years ago."

The statements from the attorneys and the city filed Wednesday evening are in response to a highly critical report last month by court-appointed investigators Edward Swanson and Audrey Barron. That probe found that the Police Department's response to allegations that several officers had exploited a teenager and likely victim of sex trafficking was “wholly inadequate” and “defective.”

The court-appointed federal monitor learned of the department's cursory investigation months after it was closed. It then oversaw a new probe under a court order issued in March of last year.

Eventually, 12 current and former OPD officers were disciplined. Alameda County prosecutors filed criminal charges against four OPD officers, along with a Livermore police officer and a Contra Costa County sheriff's deputy.


But it's unclear whether the conduct of officers involved with the initial investigation -- or that of their supervisors -- has ever been examined.

Burris and Chanin cite an early interview with the teenager at the center of the case, who was allegedly prompted, and then allowed, to destroy evidence on her phone in front of investigators.

"There is no evidence that any of the officers engaging in this behavior, or any of the supervisors who observed it and apparently failed to report it, stop it, or discipline their subordinates, were ever investigated, and if appropriate, disciplined by the Oakland Police Department," wrote the two attorneys who represent plaintiffs in the 2003 settlement of a major police misconduct lawsuit that required federal oversight of reforms.

In its filing, the city said "in the spirit of self-examination, resilience and continued transformation," it accepted the "Swanson report" and each of its recommendations.

Oakland Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said on June 21, responding to the report, that she did not know who in her command staff was involved in the investigation.

“I don’t even know who those people were in those roles and places,” said Kirkpatrick, who took her post four months ago. “My entire command staff that I have in place today, from my personal assessment, I have confidence in.”

The East Bay Express reported last week that now-Assistant Chief John Lois was in charge of OPD's Bureau of Investigations, and was since promoted by Kirkpatrick. Capt. Kirk Coleman, who was in charge of criminal investigations, now heads the Internal Affairs Division. Kirkpatrick also promoted Roland Holmgren -- formerly a lieutenant overseeing homicide investigations -- to the rank of captain. All were in supervisory roles in the Police Department's initial investigation.

Oakland city officials say they remain confident in Kirkpatrick's leadership.

"In her short tenure with the City, the Chief of Police has demonstrated a diligent commitment to holding the Department and her officers accountable for their shortcomings. She is in the process of carefully reviewing Mr. Swanson's report to identify specific performance breaches at the individual officer level and engage in corrective, remedial action."

The city's statement calls the alleged sexual misconduct "reprehensible" and "extremely troubling," but highlights changes to the department's recruitment, training and internal investigation procedures.

Those include revamping oversight of officers' responsibility to report criminal conduct to prosecutors and placing OPD's Special Victims Unit in charge of officer sexual misconduct cases.

Swanson and Barron also advise other changes to internal investigations that would increase supervision and external oversight.

But Chanin and Burris, the plaintiffs' attorneys, want to go further. They are asking for a court order compelling the city to list every potential act of misconduct identified in the "Swanson report" and explain steps taken to investigate or discipline offending officers and supervisors.

The court specifically ordered both parties to report on the implementation of a comprehensive, computerized system for tracking officer conduct, called PRIME, which went live in May.

Oakland city officials acknowledge problems with the system.

"Admittedly, there have been significant implementation and performance issues with PRIME 1.0, including numerous technological 'bugs,' " the city's statement says. "The city believes these setbacks are temporary. They are fixable; they will be fixed."

The city also lays out plans for an updated version of the system, PRIME 2.0, which would integrate body-worn camera footage and racial-stop data analytics.

Oakland and plaintiffs' attorneys are scheduled to present their arguments at a status hearing on Monday before two federal judges. Judge Thelton Henderson, who is still overseeing the case, is planning to retire, and Judge William Orrick is set to take over in August. The hearing is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. in San Francisco.

Read the parties' joint status conference statement below.