SAN FRANCISCO — A federal judge should consider holding Oakland, California, city and police officials in contempt of court for mishandling an internal affairs investigation of several officers alleged to have sexually exploited an underage prostitute, civil rights lawyers said.
U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson has summoned lawyers for the city to his court Monday to discuss a report that found fault with the mayor, city administrator, police chief and other top officials in their handling of the prostitute’s claims and two separate police investigations.
The judge oversees the police department as the result of a class-action settlement the civil rights lawyers negotiated after they sued the city over a police corruption scandal.
The lawyers, John Burris and Jim Chanin, said in a court filing last week that the police department had made significant progress under Chief Sean Whent until September 2015, when Officer Brendan O’Brien killed himself. O’Brien discussed his relationship with the teen prostitute and implicated other officers in his suicide note.
Court-appointed investigator Ed Swanson concluded in a report filed with Henderson earlier this month that Whent set the tone of the investigation with apparent indifference to the note’s content. Whent resigned under pressure last June, and no one answered his phone on Friday.
Swanson said investigators treated the teen woman, who is the daughter of a police dispatcher, more as a suspect than victim. He also said Whent and other top officials failed to keep the judge, district attorney and mayor informed of the case.
Swanson faulted the mayor for not keeping close tabs on the internal affairs investigation after it became public. Mayor Libby Schaaf said a Dec. 2 fire that killed 36 people in an Oakland warehouse on Dec. 2 took her attention away from the investigation for about a month.
The civil rights lawyers said the judge should consider a contempt order, which could result in a fine for the city, to prompt Oakland officials to reform the troubled department.
City officials in their own filing acknowledged that Whent and other officials bungled the investigation. But they say the hiring of a new chief earlier this year and the reorganization of top police officials in addition to new policies and training procedures have put the department on the right track.
“The recent setbacks have strengthened the city’s resolve to continue to improve the department’s performance and relationships with the community that it serves and protects,” city attorney Barbara Parker wrote in the court filing.
Swanson’s report faults police for failing to launch a serious investigation into the teenager’s claims she had sex with several Oakland officers starting when she was 16. The victim says she had sex with two dozen police officers in several law enforcement agencies.
Criminal investigators initially closed their probe after a strained two-hour interview with the victim, who gave muddled, conflicting accounts. The report also faulted internal affairs investigators for lackluster work as well. The victim was interviewed once on the phone. The report concluded that Whent was disinterested with the case from the start, setting the tone for his subordinates.
The city paid the victim almost $1 million to settle her legal claims. Seven current and former officers face criminal charges.