Oakland, reeling from scandal, loses three police chiefs in one week

The city of Oakland, Calif., was already under federal oversight when a allegations of a salacious scandal surfaced. What will it take to get the department back on track?

Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group/AP
Interim Oakland Police Chief Paul Figueroa speaks to members of the media before a community meeting on Wednesday, in Oakland, Calif.

The city of Oakland, Calif., is running through police chiefs more quickly than they can replace them, with three appointments in less than a week.

The embattled police department, reeling from a rapidly unravelling sex scandal involving officers and an underage prostitute as well as other accusations of officer misconduct, has struggled to find a chief who can help restore the integrity of the force.

This comes at a time when police in general are under heightened scrutiny and several urban police departments are trying out new leadership, from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Chicago and Baltimore, and struggling to restore public trust in the wake of accusations of officer misconduct. Like Oakland, these cities are in search of a leader able to command the respect of both the public and the rank and file.

In the meantime, Assistant Police Chief Paul Figueroa has taken over the Oakland Police Department from interim Police Chief Ben Fairow, who served for less than a week before his sudden dismissal on Wednesday, after allegations surfaced that a number of officers in the police department may have had sex with a prostitute while she was underage. Mr. Fairow had taken over for Police Chief Sean Whent, who resigned last Thursday after heading the department since May 2013. 

The latest scandal rocked the department, which already has been under federal oversight since 2003, after accusations that police officers had planted evidence and robbed citizens in predominantly African-American parts of Oakland. Critics say that the department did not adequately punish officers for those misdeeds. Two Oakland police officers have resigned as a result and three are on paid leave.

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf suggested that Fairow never should have been appointed to the position and vowed to delve into the institutional culture of the department.

"I remain as determined as ever to insure that this department has a culture that does not tolerate immoral behavior, bad judgment or disrespect," said Mayor Schaaf, "and certainly does not tolerate victimization of sexually exploited minors."

Schaaf and other Oakland leaders have suggested that a chief from outside of the city could be the best hope of helping the department turn a new leaf.

"We have a systemic problem here," said Oakland city councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan. "What is going on with how this whole scandal is being handled by the department is ridiculous."

Schaaf said that she is seeking a new chief who is both willing to set a firm example for the department and to maintain a level of transparency with the public.

"The leadership of this department at this moment in time is very important. We are dealing with disgusting allegations that upset me greatly," said Schaaf, adding that whoever becomes the next permanent chief must make it clear that there is zero tolerance for, "unethical behavior, sexual misbehavior or lying."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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