At a time when Black Lives Matter is forcing a collective uncomfortable conversation about policing in America, the Oakland Police Department is providing a textbook example of why this conversation needs to happen. This month, the department has gone through three chiefs in nine days before reverting to civilian control as a result of a growing series of horrific revelations and allegations indicating that the department is rotten to the core. As the situation grows worse and worse, it's highlighting why the "few bad cops" excuse is viewed with such extreme skepticism by police reform activists.
The drum that's being repeatedly beaten by law enforcement is that while yes, there are some officers who behave inappropriately, most police forces are by and large comprised of reasonable, ethical people. Yet, situations like the one in Oakland clearly belie that — just a year ago, the department, which is still under federal monitoring, was being praised for "getting clean," while horrific abuses of power were going on behind the scenes.
We might not have known about what was happening within the ranks of the OPD at all if it hadn't been for the East Bay Express, a weekly paper that has managed to thrive through a time when it's very difficult for independent weeklies to survive. Their reporting reinforces the fact that investigative journalism is important, that we should be supporting independent papers, and that just because we haven't seen anything reported yet doesn't mean there's nothing there.
The entire thing reads like something out of Law & Order: SVU. It started with the resignation of former chief Sean Whent for "personal reasons," which the East Bay Express quickly discovered were actually nothing of the sort. Under the chief's supposedly watchful eye, at least 14 officers were involved in the trafficking of an underage sex worker, with a number of them committing statutory rape and providing her with information about police operations.
This supposedly ethical, clean force making a turnaround after being placed under federal oversight for improper use of force was tolerating a culture in which a vulnerable child could be passed between police officers like a party favor. And it spilled over into other agencies, with people from the Alameda Sheriff's Department, Richmond Police Department, and San Francisco Police Department also implicated.
Under these circumstances, it's perhaps not surprising that the police chief was forced out. His replacement, Ben Farrow, barely had chance to move into his office before he was summarily booted on the grounds that the mayor discovered "information" around him that she felt made him a poor fit for the position. So he was replaced by Paul Figueroa, who voluntarily stepped down within days — with no public explanation why, the reason could be any number of things, some potentially very unsavory.
It's not unreasonable to speculate, given the recent history of the department and what happened next: While the OPD was embroiled in a horrific sex trafficking scandal, news came out that a totally different set of officers were also involved in exchanging racist text messages. If that's ringing a bell, it should. Last year, the San Francisco Police Department was also thrown into a very serious investigation regarding the widespread distribution of racist text messages among a large group of officers. In 2014, the same thing happened in Fort Lauderdale. The LA Sheriff's Office has also been involved in similar investigations. And when cops aren't using their phones to be racist, they're hitting Facebook.
While under federal oversight intended to address systemic problems with its officers, the Oakland Police Department still somehow managed to find time to get involved in a trafficking ring and tolerate the exchange of racist text messages. The mayor appears to be under the impression that being under civilian control means the "toxic" and "frat house" atmosphere will be mitigated, but I'm not so convinced. Given the lengthy history of activities like these in police departments across the country, this sounds a lot like cops being cops.
The situation in Oakland pretty profoundly illustrates why a lot of people distrust the police: They don't really have any good reason to have faith in police departments, and it's disingenuous and insulting to suggest that they're being unfair. They're being perfectly fair. This is a country where excessive use of force is common in departments everywhere, and it's weaponized against Black subjects more than anyone else. It's a place where racist comments are widely tolerated, where police mock mentally ill people, disappear people into sinister black sites, and beat homeless men to death.
Vulnerable communities have no reason to trust police because they've been given no reason whatsoever to have any faith in police departments and the officers who staff them. They've witnessed systemic, entrenched discriminatory attitudes and violence with no meaningful steps towards change. And what they hear, repeatedly, is that it's "just a few bad cops" and that the vast majority of cops are good people.
If that's the case, where were all of the good cops for these events? Why didn't they say something to someone at some point, either openly or anonymously? In this instance, the department only started digging in on an investigation after a police officer who was involved in the sex trafficking activities committed suicide and provided detailed information in his suicide note. All too often, situations like these don't come out until long after the fact, or until a dogged civilian gets to the heart of a situation and exposes it.
There's little to no accountability for the actions of police officers — look to the slew of refusals to indict and acquittals in cases of police shootings. Every time a department is exposed like this, it rips open a sinister level of background racism and discriminatory attitudes. We have no way of knowing whether these things are present in other departments — it's difficult to prove a negative, and as illustrated here, there's no particular reason to have faith in department officials to promptly identify and penalize inappropriate behavior.
Given constant discoveries about routine discrimination in law enforcement agencies, it's a bit hard to stomach the claim that it's just some bad eggs that will sort themselves out eventually. What's happening in Oakland is a reminder that the fish rots from the head.