The Oakland school district's small police force, which has drawn outsized attention this year for an officer-involved shooting and an alleged racist outburst by its chief, has a new interim leader.
Beginning Tuesday, Lt. James Williams, a 17-year veteran of the Oakland Housing Authority's police department, will head the Oakland school police operations while the district searches for a permanent chief, Troy Flint, the school district's spokesman, announced Friday.
"He has a reputation as a man with high integrity," Flint said.
Williams will be the second person to run the 16-officer police department since Aug. 4, when then-Chief Peter Sarna, 41, was placed on administrative leave and later retired after an investigation into a complaint that he directed racial slurs at one of his African-American officers on the way home from a charity event in July.
District officials drew heavy criticism for tapping Sgt. Barhin Bhatt -- the highest-ranking member of the department who was not a witness in the Sarna inquiry -- to lead the department temporarily during the investigation, which ended upon Sarna's departure from the district.
In January, while patrolling the area outside a school dance, Bhatt shot and killed Raheim Brown, a 20-year-old man who was in the passenger seat of a car parked on the side of the road with its hazard lights on. According to the district's former chief, the two officers approached the car to investigate, and Bhatt began shooting when he saw Brown stabbing the other officer with a screwdriver. Police said they didn't learn until after the shooting that the car had been reported stolen. Brown and the woman in the car apparently had no connection to the dance and had just coincidentally parked nearby.
In May, the Oakland school district's general counsel said an internal affairs investigation conducted by a consultant retained by the district concluded " ... there is no basis for determination that any district policies, practices and regulations have been violated in this case."
In the months since her son's death, Lori Davis has been a regular presence at Oakland school board meetings, showing graphic photos of Brown's body after his death. She and her supporters have demanded the termination of the two officers who were at the scene and called for an end to the department. Davis has said she is filing a lawsuit against the district.
At the Aug. 24 Oakland school board meeting, dozens of people spoke out against the decision to put Bhatt in charge of the force. Speakers included Cephus Johnson, the uncle of Oscar Grant III, an unarmed Hayward man whose death at the hands of former BART police officer Johannes Mehserle in January 2009 led to riots in downtown Oakland.
"We're looking for an opportunity to bridge the gap between the community and the police officers," Johnson told the school board. "This is not the way to do it."
At the meeting, Superintendent Tony Smith told the audience the district was "working very fast" to find a new leader. On Friday, however, Flint said the appointment of Williams -- who is on loan from the OHA until a permanent replacement is found -- had nothing to do with the outcry. He said the administration determined it wanted someone outside of the department to help conduct an evaluation of "general cultural issues that we felt needed more investigation." Flint wouldn't say what those issues were, but said they were "of an internal nature" and unrelated to the shooting or the incident involving its ex-chief.
"Despite all the controversy around the department, Bhatt did an admirable job in some unfavorable circumstances," Flint said.
Read Katy Murphy's Oakland schools blog at www.IBAbuzz.com/education.
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