By Anna Challet, California Black Media Correspondent
A coalition of attorneys, civil rights advocates, and advocates for sexually exploited children are calling for California Attorney General Kamala Harris to manage the investigation into the alleged exploitation of a teenage girl by officers at several Bay Area police departments.
The alleged misconduct came to light nearly a year ago, and no officers at any of the law enforcement agencies – the police departments of Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, and Livermore, and the sheriff’s departments of Alameda and Contra Costa Counties – have been prosecuted.
Advocates think the case is being swept under the rug, and have little faith that district attorneys’ offices can be trusted with the investigation given their close relationship with law enforcement. The advocates, led by Oakland-based attorney Pamela Price and including Kimberly Thomas Rapp, the executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, want Governor Jerry Brown to issue an executive order putting Harris in charge.
“We need to have an independent, impartial investigation,” said Price, speaking at a demonstration in front of the Richmond Police Station on Thursday.
President of the Richmond/Contra Costa chapter of Black Women Organized for Political Action Kathleen Sullivan added, “This is a time in our country when we need to restore the trust in our law enforcement like never before.”
The investigation into the officers’ alleged crimes began with the September 2015 suicide of Brendan O’Brien, an officer with the Oakland Police Department. He left a suicide note that referenced his relationship with the young woman whose exploitation is being investigated, who goes by the name Celeste Guap.
Guap, now 19, was questioned in the aftermath of O’Brien’s death. Allegedly, O’Brien’s exploitation of her began before she turned 18, when he’d come to her aid on the street; Guap was at the time being commercially sexually exploited in Oakland.
Since then, the investigation has come to involve approximately 30 officers in different Bay Area departments. Some of the officers’ alleged sexual misconduct took place when Guap was a minor; Guap also says that some officers compensated her.
Speaking at the demonstration, President of the California National Organization for Women Jerilyn Stapleton said, “We want other law enforcement agencies throughout the state to know that there are going to be repercussions, that it’s not going to be this code of silence, that they are going to be prosecuted” for misconduct of this nature.
Cat Brooks, the co-founder of the Oakland Anti-Police Terror Project, says that because of the relationship that district attorneys have with law enforcement,
“It’s the fox in the hen house” to leave the investigation up to local D.A. offices. “In the same way we can’t expect when there’s an officer-involved shooting for district attorneys to hold law enforcement accountable, it’s not going to happen,” she says.
In calling for an executive order, the coalition is referencing the part of the state constitution (Article V, Section 13) that holds that the attorney general can prosecute violations of law in any county where she feels that the law isn’t being enforced, and that the governor can direct her to do this. In June, Harris said she would intervene if the local investigations were insufficient.
At the same time, Brooks says, “I would be remiss if I didn’t say that we don’t have a lot of faith in Kamala Harris either. The community has asked her repeatedly to intervene in [other] instances of officer misconduct.” In this case, the fact remains that no officers have been arrested.
The East Bay Express reported on Thursday that Celeste Guap has been arrested in Florida for aggravated battery. She traveled to the Port St. Lucie area in late August to start a drug treatment program; the circumstances regarding the choice to go to Florida are at this point unclear. Guap and her mother have told the East Bay Express that the Richmond Police Department is paying for Guap to go to rehab.
The coalition calling for Harris to take on the investigation believes that Guap is not the only young woman who has been allegedly exploited in this manner. They add in their public statement,
“We understand and appreciate that minors and women engaged in sex work in our communities are extremely vulnerable to the abuse of power by our law enforcement agencies and that ‘blaming the victim’ is not an appropriate response to our crisis.”