Beginning in late 2015, Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent set a tone inside his department: investigators should downplay a string of alleged sex crimes committed by multiple cops. Investigations into the matter weren’t a priority.
The result of his leadership was that police officers and top brass mishandled and prematurely closed several internal investigations in the “Celeste Guap” case. The chief also hid his department’s poorly conducted internal probe from Oakland’s mayor, the district attorney, the court-appointed monitor overseeing OPD, and the public.
Whent was never held accountable. Instead, he suddenly and unexpectedly resigned.
This is all according to a report released today by investigators appointed by a federal judge to get the bottom of OPD’s mishandling of the matter. The report reveals new information about Oakland cops’ sexual exploitation of Guap — but it mainly addresses how other Oakland police officers buried the case.
The report concludes that Oakland police are far from reformed, and that the city’s political leaders are partly to blame for the lack of accountability and change.
Hardly any aspect of the department’s internal investigation of the sex-crimes case was properly conducted, according to attorneys Edward Swanson and Audrey Barron, who produced the report for U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson.
“The investigation went off track as soon as it started,” the attorneys wrote.
According to the attorneys, Whent characterized Guap’s allegations — that several cops sexually exploited her while she was underage — as “bullshit.”
The chief also pressured internal affairs to close out the case as quickly as possible. And he did this while he and the city’s leaders were promoting an image that OPD was a model of reform and transparency, and that it was time to end federal-court oversight.
For example, in a March 7, 2016, email that internal-affairs commander Donna Hoppenhauer sent to one of her lieutenants, she wrote that the “chief wants the O’Brien caper finished,” referring to Officer Brendan O’Brien, who committed statutory rape of Guap in 2015, and later killed himself.
Swanson and Barron also reported that Whent wasn’t the only OPD offficial who repeatedly took steps to prevent a full and robust investigation.
Top department commanders and investigators in the homicide, internal affairs, and special-victims units all mishandled the case from its earliest stages. They attempted to close the inquiry as soon as possible, despite evidence of department policy violations and criminal behavior.
Police supervisors also neglected to report shocking information to outside authorities, even when required to under the department’s negotiated-settlement agreement.
Finally, Oakland’s new chief of police, Anne Kirkpatrick, subsequently promoted several of these individuals to top posts. They’re now running the department.
‘Went Off Track as Soon as it Started’
At a press conference this afternoon, Oakland’s mayor, city administrator, city attorney, and new police chief downplayed aspects of the federal investigation. They stated that they “appreciate” the report, and they are prepared to implement a list of nine recommendations contained in it. But they admitted no wrongdoing by the department’s current leadership.
Kirkpatrick called all the problems diagnosed in the report “reparable.”
But Jim Chanin, one of the civil-rights attorneys who has participated in the department’s 14-year-old court mandated reform effort, said that the federal report raises a whole new set of concerns about OPD’s leadership. Now, he wants to know who else besides Whent either purposefully, or inadvertently, screwed up the Guap case.
“Chief Whent, for whatever reason, caused a number of problems to impede this investigation,” Chanin said, but after Whent resigned, Chanin’s impression was that the reopened case proceeded swiftly.
“It clear now that’s not true,” said Chanin. “In fact, one or more officers, I can’t tell who they are, but one or more, all of who may still be on the force, acted inappropriately and should be investigated.”
Specifically, Swanson and Barron found that OPD homicide investigators shut down their examination of allegations that Guap had been sexually exploited by several cops within a week. These individuals included several homicide detectives that questioned Guap, as well as their supervising lieutenant, a sergeant from the department’s special-victims unit, and the captain in charge of the department’s criminal investigation division.
This occurred despite the fact that Guap’s interview, conducted at OPD’s headquarters, produced disturbing leads that implicated multiple police officers. O’Brien’s cell phone and suicide note also contained information about other officers who sexually exploited the teenager.
Astonishingly, the report states that the two homicide investigators actually blamed Guap for causing O’Brien’s suicide, and told her during the interview that her speaking out might cause additional deaths.
In response, Guap started to delete evidence from her phone while seated in front of the investigators. Neither of the officers attempted to stop her from destroying the evidence.
“They did not follow up on the leads they had developed in the interview, nor did they do any other investigatory work, such as reviewing social media, seeking the DA’s assistance with obtaining subpoenas or search warrants, or even requesting information voluntarily from witnesses,” Swanson and Barron wrote.
“The investigation went off track as soon as it started” and was “wholly inadequate.”
The leadership of OPD’s bureau of investigations — which oversees the criminal-investigation division, and the homicide and special-victims units — chose not to notify the district attorney that crimes might have been committed by officers. This is a violation of the department’s negotiated-settlement agreement, and also shielded their inadequate police work from external review, according to Swanson and Barron.
The deputy chief overseeing the bureau of investigations at the time was John Lois. The head of the criminal-investigation division was Capt. Kirk Coleman. And the lieutenant overseeing the homicide unit, which was the first OPD unit to interview Guap, was Roland Holmgren.
Swanson and Barron chose not to name any OPD officials in their report, instead referring to people by rank. But while it is well-known who was leading what department during the Guap scandal, Kirkpatrick said she was unaware of the identities of the officers and command staff mentioned in the report.
Last month, however, Kirkpatrick promoted Lois to assistant police chief, and Holmgren was bumped to the rank of captain, overseeing the criminal-investigation division. Coleman now leads OPD’s internal affairs division.
At today’s press conference, Kirkpatrick said Lois and Holmgren “have great character and integrity.”
“I have confidence in these men,” she added.
Feds Question City Leadership, OPD’s Progress
The report states that during their initial investigation, OPD investigators blamed Guap, while they treated suspected officers with a “friendly and non-confrontational” tone.
During an interview, officers also referred to Guap as a “whore.”
An internal-affairs investigator justified the decision to not interview other police officers accused of exploiting the teenager because Guap had a “modus operandi” to use Facebook to “lure officers to have sex with her.”
The department exhibited “an implicit evident bias against the victim, based on the type of victim she was,” the report states.
Guap told the Express today that she thought the investigators didn’t take her seriously. “They had smirks on their face, almost like they thought it was funny,” she said.
Guap also confirmed some of Swanson and Barron’s findings. For instance, when she tried contacting internal affairs for a second meeting, to talk about her life and O’Brien, no one called her back.
“Like the report said, she never asked me any follow-up questions,” said Guap about one particular investigator. “I did want to meet up with her in person. I remember she said she could help me. So, a month later, I called to see if she could help me. I told her I would talk about O’Brien. But she never called back.”
“Apart from the investigator’s initial phone call with [Guap] in October 2015, no one from IAD ever attempted to contact Ms. Abuslin until after the Court intervened in the investigation in March 2016,” Swanson and Barron explained.
Internal affairs’ initial report about the case did not accurately reflect interviews, nor did it summarize important evidence, such as text messages between Guap and police officers.
At this same time, Swanson wrote that internal affairs also apparently took into consideration how the probe’s outcome might affect the department’s public image. Chief Whent and city officials had been making public statements that they were hoping Judge Henderson would agree to end the department’s lengthy court oversight program.
During this time, Oakland’s city attorney was shut out of OPD’s internal-affairs investigation.
A deputy city attorney “found it unusual” that investigators did not look deeper or seek guidance from Parker’s office. At one point, this city attorney asked Lois whether his investigators were still looking into the case. According to Swanson, Lois told the attorney he’d been briefed on the issue, but that Guap had retracted statements and wasn’t cooperative, which allowed him to close the investigation.
Swanson concluded that internal affairs commander Hoppenhauer “did not set a tone that the sexual misconduct investigation was a high priority to the Department, or that the investigators should pursue it aggressively.”
Instead, internal affairs emphasized that the alleged behaviors occurred while the officers were off duty, and that they did not use their work phones or other police equipment.
The case languished for months, until OPD’s court court-appointed monitor learned of it in March 2016 and reported to Judge Henderson, who ordered the monitor to take over the case.
Swanson was unable to determine why Whent buried the case. But he concluded that, without the federal court’s intervention, the case would likely have disappeared.
Swanson wrote, however, that Schaaf and Landreth allowed their own independent investigation to stall and did not demand progress or answers about what went wrong inside OPD.
At today’s press conference, Schaaf and Landreth claimed they paused their investigation because they didn’t want to compromise any of the internal affairs or criminal investigations that had been re-started. They didn’t explain how their administrative examination of the department’s thorough mishandling of the Guap case could compromise anything, however.
As Swanson concluded: “Just as OPD required Court intervention to conduct a thorough investigation, the City required Court intervention to investigate the Department, and that too raises questions of sustainable progress in the absence of court supervision.”