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In 2016, rumors started to swirl that a major sex scandal was about to descend on the Richmond Police Department. Several Richmond police officers had been accused of having sex with an 18-year-old victim named Jasmine Abuslin, who was known as "Celeste Guap." Abuslin had also been exploited by Oakland police officers who were giving her protection, food, and restricted police information for sex while she was still a minor.
The lurid story unfolded in the glare of the national media, which caused the resignation of three Oakland police chiefs within nine days and ultimately cost Oakland taxpayers nearly $1 million to settle Abuslin's claim against the city.
As the scandal bore down on Richmond, Brown put together a plan to handle the department's public image. According to internal emails, Brown wanted to tightly control information about the sex scandal. He then made Lieutenant Felix Tan his chief of staff. Brown also appointed Tan as the lead public information officer and made him solely responsible for dealing with the press on anything related to Abuslin.
Both Brown and Assistant Chief Bisa French sent out department-wide emails that warned police employees they would be disciplined for talking about the case.
"If you have information that's pertinent to these investigations, you are directed to immediately disclose it to the Office of Professional Accountability," Brown wrote in a department-wide email on June 14, 2016. "It is not to be discussed, disseminated or otherwise shared with others. It must be kept confidential. Violators will subject themselves to graduated corrective, or punitive action."
The stern tone of the email suggested that Brown was more concerned about protecting the names of the officers who had exploited Abuslin than he was about the department's credibility.
By July of 2016, the department's newly created Office of Professional Accountability was investigating 11 Richmond police officers for their involvement with Abuslin. In the midst of the investigation, Abuslin had started talking freely to the press. And that's when Brown decided to fly Abuslin out of town to a drug rehabilitation facility. Working through the Family Justice Center, a nonprofit the police department largely funds and is partnered with, a Richmond police sergeant showed up at Abuslin's family home in July. He rushed Abuslin out of her home with such urgency that she only had time to put on her bedroom slippers. According to Abuslin, Richmond officers attempted to persuade her to get her on a plane to Florida that day by telling her to consider the rehabilitation facility a "paid vacation."
Abuslin refused to get on the plane, but by mid-August, Richmond police officers had convinced her to leave town. Against department protocol, a lone officer, Sergeant Matt Stonebraker, drove Abuslin to the San Francisco airport and put her on a flight to Florida. Department protocol requires any female who is transported to be accompanied by at least two officers, and a male officer should never be alone with a sex crime victim. None of that occurred during Abuslin's transportation, nor was there a record kept of the mileage and destination, which also is required when transporting suspects and victims. Abuslin was booked into a Florida rehabilitation center that forbade any contact between patients and the outside world, including family members, investigators, and the press.
It was a risky move. Flying a sex-crime victim to another state for drug rehabilitation (instead of sending her to one of the dozens of rehabilitation facilities in the Bay Area) was unprecedented and highly questionable for Richmond police — especially considering the victim was at the center of at least three investigations in as many jurisdictions for police misconduct.
Brown would later claim in a four-page report to the city council that he had facilitated Abuslin's entry into a Florida rehabilitation center because he was concerned about her addiction. He denied allegations that he was hiding her from the press and investigators. "Representations that we 'sent' this teenage witness away or had her 'removed' to Florida distort reality," Brown wrote.
Critics said the Richmond Police Department's actions could be considered obstruction of justice and witness tampering, given that several jurisdictions were conducting investigations involving Abuslin.
"Why take the risk, at a minimum, of giving the community the impression that they are trying to hide something," former federal prosecutor Gil Soffer told ABC7. "Because that's the optics of it."
Brown did not put any of the officers who were accused of exploiting a teenager on administrative leave during the investigation. And the internal investigation concluded that there was no criminal wrongdoing by any of the 11 Richmond police officers who were investigated, according to Brown's five-page report to the Richmond City Council. He recommended only one officer be terminated, while others were suspended or received letters of reprimand from the chief.
Brown's report treated Abuslin alternatively harshly and compassionately. When it came to his officers having "non-criminal" sex with Abuslin, he described her as an "adult female teenager — a self-admitted sex worker" who bragged about having sexual encounters with many police officers. But then, when attempting to justify his decision to send her to Florida, he referred to Abuslin as a "documented" victim who needed the police department's help.
Brown's recommendations for reprimanding his officers for such a violation of the public trust were considered too lenient. After reviewing the 275-page report, City Manager Bill Lindsay promptly added three more officers to the termination list, for a total of four.