OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The interim police chief in Oakland, California, was abruptly removed after six days on the job Wednesday amid a widening sex scandal that the city’s mayor said involved “disgusting allegations” that a number of officers had sex with a teenage prostitute.
Mayor Libby Schaaf said new information she received Monday led her to lose confidence in Ben Fairow’s ability to lead the beleaguered department. She appointed Fairow, an assistant chief for the regional transit system who previously spent 21 years as an officer in Oakland, after Chief Sean Whent resigned last Thursday.
The mayor said she should have taken more time to vet Fairow and called his appointment a mistake, but said state personnel laws prohibited her from elaborating on why she felt compelled to remove him.
“I own the mistake I made. The important thing is I’m trying to fix it and fix it quickly,” she said.
Two officers with the historically troubled Oakland department have resigned, and three others remain on paid leave in the sex misconduct case.
The scandal, involving at least 14 Oakland police officers, is a blow to a department under federal oversight because of past failures to adequately hold officers accountable for misdeeds that included planting evidence and robbing residents in predominantly black west Oakland.
An 18-year-old woman has alleged in multiple news media interviews that two dozen current and former officers in five cities had sex with her while she walking the streets. Encounters with three of the officers took place when she was a minor, the woman has said.
Before his sudden resignation last week, former chief Whent revealed that an Oakland officer’s September suicide had led the department’s internal affairs division to open an investigation into whether any current officers committed sexual misconduct with a minor.
Officer Brendan O’Brien killed himself a little more than a year after police say his wife, Irma Huerta-Lopez, also took her life. Whent did not specify how O’Brien’s suicide led to the sexual misconduct probe.
Other law enforcement agencies in the area also are investigating possible misconduct by their officers. The police department in the city of Richmond said this week that several ranking officers are being investigated for criminal contact with the woman or policy violations.
Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said Wednesday that the city council had not been briefed on the mayor’s reasons for firing the interim chief. But Kaplan expressed concern about the police department’s ability to investigate its own.
“We have a systemic problem here,” she said. “What is going on with how this whole scandal is being handled by the department is ridiculous.”
This is the second time in three years that Oakland has faced a rocky transition in obtaining a new police chief. When Chief Howard Jordan resigned in May 2013, the assistant chief assigned to replace him on an interim basis served for two days before Whent took over.
Schaaf acknowledged that Fairow had been rushed in as interim chief. She said she felt comfortable inviting him to take the job temporarily after a brief series of interviews because he has a good reputation and she knew him from his previous work in Oakland, which included stints in internal affairs and overseeing the police department’s vice and narcotics unit.
Her office was in the process of conducting a background check on Fairow when she received the information that led to her decision to remove him. Assistant Chief Paul Figueroa will serve as acting chief while she takes more time to find an outside candidate to serve on an interim basis and conducts a nationwide search for a permanent chief, Schaaf said.
“The leadership of this department at this moment in time is very important. We are dealing with disgusting allegations that upset me greatly,” she said, adding that new leadership would be critical to making clear the department does not tolerate “unethical behavior, sexual misbehavior or lying.”
“I remain as determined as ever to insure that this department has a culture that does not tolerate immoral behavior, bad judgment or disrespect and certainly does not tolerate victimization of sexually exploited minors,” Schaaf said.
Associated Press Writer Ellen Knickmeyer in San Francisco contributed to this story.