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Mired In Scandals, Oakland Mayor Calls For Police Department Oversight

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is known as the blue wall of silence - those times when police departments close ranks to protect officers and keep wrong - wrongdoing from going public. Right now, the Oakland Police Department seems to be going through something of an opposite experience, with leaked information fueling multiple scandals. Member station KQED's Sandhya Dirks reports on a police force in turmoil.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Just last September, the Oakland Police Department, led by Chief Sean Whent, was riding high as they were lauded by the Obama administration as a model of 21st century policing, and he wanted the public to realize it.

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SEAN WHENT: To recognize that OPD really has changed the way we do business and that we're a different agency than we used to be.

DIRKS: The crime rate fell significantly under Whent's leadership, and many say he was responsive to criticism. His tactics were a far cry from 16 years ago, when rogue officers planted drugs on African-Americans. That case, known as the Riders, landed OPD under the watch of a court-appointed monitor. Even as Whent was accepting congrats for improving the department, another scandal was brewing. Last fall, an OPD officer committed suicide, leaving behind a note that implicated himself and multiple officers of having relations with a sex worker, some while she was under age. Here's the young woman, who goes by the name Celeste Guap, talking to local TV station KPIX.

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CELESTE GUAP: Thinking back at it, yeah, you know, I do see myself as being a victim because I do feel like I was taken advantage of.

DIRKS: The scandal may not have come to light if the court-appointed monitor hadn't taken over the investigation in March and if officers inside the OPD hadn't started leaking information. It's a department that's not only mired in a sex scandal, but in other scandals as well, like reports of a homicide detective who let his girlfriend fill out his police reports, compromising investigations, and racist text messages sent by officers. The leaks are as recent as last night. Civil rights lawyer John Burris has acted as a police watchdog for decades.

JOHN BURRIS: It's almost like you can do stuff with impunity, that as long as no one talks, you all can engage in it and you can always have fun.

DIRKS: In the last two weeks alone, three police chiefs have come and gone. Frustrated Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf made this highly publicized criticism of police culture.

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LIBBY SCHAAF: I am here to run a police department, not a frat house.

DIRKS: Lawyer John Burris says this represents a larger failure of police, and not just in Oakland.

BURRIS: It's not about a few bad apples. It really is about a systematic approach to policing that is fundamentally ingrained in the nature of policing.

DIRKS: Oakland and its police department may have been willing to open up and look at itself in the mirror, but the image reflecting back seems pretty dysfunctional. Mayor Schaaf has appointed a civilian, the city administrator, to temporarily oversee the department. But at a recent city council meeting, Councilmember Desley Brooks went even further.

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DESLEY BROOKS: To effectively make sure that we have accountability for those officers who are not serving our public well, we need to establish a system outside of the police department.

DIRKS: Brooks and her fellow council members are suggesting a citizen-led Oakland police commission with disciplinary power. That proposal could go before voters in November. For NPR News, I'm Sandhya Dirks in Oakland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.