Attorneys representing Oakland squared off Monday against those representing plaintiffs in a long-running police-abuse lawsuit that initiated federal court oversight of the city's Police Department more than 14 years ago.
At issue: What the ignored, downplayed and otherwise botched investigation into alleged sexual abuse of a teenager by several OPD officers last year says about the city and Police Department's commitment to reform.
Judge Thelton Henderson said it's "crystal clear" that the alleged sexual misconduct of Oakland officers would never had been addressed if the court had not intervened.
"That's extremely troubling," Henderson said, "and it shows that we're still not finished with this case after 14 years -- 14 years of reforming a department that the Negotiated Settlement Agreement contemplated would be fixed in five years."
Monday's hearing followed a damning June 20 report on the sexual exploitation case by court-appointed attorneys that found "OPD's initial investigation of this case -- both as a criminal matter and as an internal affairs matter -- was seriously deficient." The report found structural issues with the department's investigation processes, as well as pressure from department leadership to close the investigation and poor follow-up from city officials.
The case involves a teenager, now 19, who allegedly had sexual relationships with several OPD officers and approximately two dozen law enforcement officers from other Bay Area jurisdictions, some while she was 17 years old.
A note left by an OPD officer who committed suicide in September 2015 reportedly alerted the department to the teenager, Jasmine Abuslin, and her relationships with several officers. The case eventually led to criminal charges for four OPD officers, ranging from failure to report child abuse to engaging in prostitution and obstruction of justice. The city initiated discipline against a dozen officers. But that was only after federal officials learned "almost by accident" about the case, according to the June 20 report.
"Had OPD conducted a rigorous investigation on its own, the Department could have demonstrated its ability to police itself without the Court's supervision," the report says. "Instead, OPD damaged its reputation by failing to timely report the allegations to the appropriate authorities, by doing such a poor job of investigating the allegations, and by requiring Court intervention to correct course."
The report prompted the pair of civil rights attorneys involved in oversight of the OPD since they filed a police-abuse lawsuit in 2000 to argue for stronger court intervention. Specifically, the attorneys are calling for an investigation of officers who supervised the Police Department's initial response to allegations about Abuslin.
"These include people at the very highest levels of the OPD," civil rights attorney Jim Chanin said after the hearing on Monday. "The city needs to identify them and hold them accountable. If they don’t do that ... the lesson they will learn from this is that you can get away with this."
The East Bay Express reported that at least three command-level OPD officers that supervised the initial sexual exploitation investigation have since been promoted.
Newly appointed Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said on June 21, in response to the report, that she did not know who in her command staff was involved in the investigation.
She said in court that she has since learned that information.
"I know what all the events were, according to the report," Kirkpatrick said in court. "I know all of the failings and when they occurred."
She said after the hearing on Monday that employment law prevented her from vetting her command staff's decisions sooner.
"Employment law is a law and is governed by laws," she said. "So, no, that was not available to me."
Kirkpatrick did not elaborate. But Oakland city attorneys argued in court that those Police Department supervisors should be part of fixing the problem.
"The city and the department see this review as an opportunity for those who were involved in the investigations to self-identify areas of improvement," Oakland City Attorney and Police Department legal counsel Kim Bliss said in court.
"We disagree with that," civil rights attorney John Burris said. "I'm concerned that you shouldn’t have people involved who really diverted the investigation, who short-stopped the investigation. I think that’s a bad signal for everyone."
The details of any further federal oversight that would ultimately grow from the sexual exploitation case are in the hands of Judge Thelton Henderson, who is set to retire next month after 36 years on the bench and 14 years presiding over reform of the Oakland Police Department.
He's expected to issue his last order on the matter in the coming days, and in August Judge William Orrick will take over.
"I find myself inspired to continue to be optimistic," Henderson said. "The progress has been neither quick nor easy, but it has been made. We have not been without our setbacks, including this most recent one, but I hope that the defendants are now back on the path for full and sustainable compliance."
But all the parties acknowledge they've heard promises and optimism about OPD's progress before.
Burris, quoting Yogi Berra, said it feels like "deja vu all over again."