Oakland mayor faces test amid embarrassing police scandals

Posted at 5:51 PM, Jun 22, 2016
OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Libby Schaaf is a trained lawyer who left her legal career years ago for grassroots community service in Oakland that eventually led to her election as mayor of the long-troubled California city.
Now, midway through her first term, she is facing the toughest trial of her political career with the scandal-ridden Oakland Police Department providing a seemingly daily dose of embarrassment for her and the city.
The department, which has been monitored by a federal judge since a 2003 settlement in a civil rights case, has had three chiefs just this month. Twice, Schaaf's hand-picked successors left their jobs within days and Schaaf was forced to hold news conferences and take the blame for not sufficiently vetting her choices.
In announcing the departure of Acting Chief Paul Figueroa after just two days last week, Schaaf angrily denounced the department's "toxic, macho culture" and vowed to root out bad officers.
"As the mayor of Oakland, I'm here to run a police department, not a frat house," she said.
Some members of the department are being investigated for sending racist text messages while others are embroiled in a sex scandal. An 18-year-old who has called herself a sex worker says she had sexual relationships with Oakland officers, including some when she was underage. She is the daughter of a department employee.
The scandals and Schaaf's handling of the department have some community groups calling for her to step down.
Schaaf declined an interview request and issued a statement Tuesday saying she is dedicated to reforming the department. She has said she will not immediately appoint an interim chief. Instead, the command staff will report to City Administrator Sabrina Landreth, who will handle personnel and disciplinary decisions.
The 51-year-old Schaaf is the latest mayor to promise to clean up the blue-collar city of about 410,000 that has yet to see the economic boom now underway in neighboring San Francisco. One of the city's bright spots has been the NBA's Golden State Warriors, but even they took a hit, losing the NBA Finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers last weekend.
Oakland has in past years seen triple-digit annual homicide tallies and has been on the FBI's list of the 10 most dangerous cities in the country. Poverty is rampant in some areas, with gangs and drugs linked to as much as 90 percent of the killings.
There is a deep disparity between the flatlands and the hills of Oakland in health, graduation rates and quality of life. Empty storefronts pepper the city and the last large retailer, Sears, left downtown in 2014.
There have been improvements. Uber is setting up shop in Oakland and Sunset magazine recently relocated its offices to the city.
City Councilmember Lynette Gibson McElhaney said Schaaf has the confidence of voters to help Oakland can get through its current challenges.
"I think things are still turning around," McElhaney said.
However, Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan expressed frustration with the mayor for making decisions unilaterally, including appointing the city administrator to oversee the department at a time when Oakland has other pressing issues that also need the attention of the executive.
Kaplan, who lost to Schaaf in the 2014 mayoral race, also noted that the City Council was not consulted about the decision to hire and fire Interim Chief Ben Fairow.
Schaaf became Oakland's 50th mayor in January 2015 after serving one term as a city councilmember. Before that she was an aide to Jerry Brown when he was mayor before his election as governor.
She has said her primary goals are community safety, sustainable infrastructure, equitable jobs and housing, and a responsive government. She has made good on some promises.
During her most recent state of the city address, Schaaf pointed out that Oakland has seen a double-digit drop in overall shootings. Violent crime has also dipped, and Schaaf said she'll continue to expand the city's anti-gang violence strategy, known as Ceasefire.
She recently outlined a plan to protect 17,000 households in existing affordable housing and create 17,000 new units at all income levels over the next eight years.
John Burris, an attorney who negotiated the 2003 settlement that placed Oakland police under federal oversight, said Schaaf is pulling from her legal training as she works through the police scandal.
"In politics, stuff happens and it's how you handle it that shows how you are," he said. "She's doing an admiral job of addressing the crisis in a lawyer-like fashion and not running from the crisis."
Others disagree.
Rashidah Grinage, who heads the Coalition for Police Accountability, said the recent scandals show a lack of oversight.
"We couldn't have scripted this any better to show the lack of accountability that has existed for more than 20 years and that demonstrates the need for a robust civilian police commission to oversee and monitor the department," Grinage said.