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New OUSD police chief takes over amidst controversy

on September 7, 2011

The third Chief of Police for the Oakland Unified School District in two months started his first day on the job Tuesday.

Lieutenant James Williams, a police officer for 17 years, primarily with the Oakland Housing Authority, was named interim chief on September 2, replacing Sgt. Barhin Bhatt. Bhatt, in turn, had replaced OUSD police chief Pete Sarna, who stepped down from his position on August 17, after another officer filed a complaint against him alleging that he used racial epithets to refer to an African American school police officer.

The hunt for Sarna’s replacement has been controversial. The Coalition for Justice for Oscar Grant has protested Bhatt’s presence at Oakland schools at “seven or eight” school board meetings this year, according to coalition member Cat Brooks. Bhatt was involved in the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Raheim Brown in January at a dance outside Skyline High School. On January 22, Bhatt and Sgt. Jonathan Bellusa were patrolling the area around Skyline when they approached an allegedly stolen car, in which Brown was seated. According to police, Brown stabbed Bellusa with a screwdriver and was then shot multiple times by Bhatt and killed.

Troy Flint, spokesman for the school district, said Bhatt was a “stop-gap” chief who did an admirable job in a tough situation, but was never intended to be more than a short-term replacement while the district sought applicants for a permanent police chief. Flint said it was not surprising that Bhatt’s appointment was protested, since Brown’s family members and supporters have been protesting at school board meetings since March, asking both that Bhatt be fired and that a wider investigation be conducted into Brown’s death. The coalition intends to protest at tonight’s meeting as well, Brooks said, and every two weeks after that. “The initial call was for Bhatt and Bellusa to be terminated for the murder of Raheim Brown,” Brooks said. “That still stands.”

Flint said external pressure did not have an effect on school board administrators selecting Bhatt, or Williams to succeed him, because Bhatt was the most high ranking officer in the department after Sarna left and was expected to hold the chief job only on a temporary basis. “We appointed Bhatt because that’s what the protocols suggested that we do,” Flint said, “even though we knew it wouldn’t be a popular decision in some circles.”

Williams is also an interim police chief, but Flint said Williams is expected to hold the job for at least a couple months while a search for a permanent replacement is conducted. As the OUSD chief of police, Williams will be responsible for overseeing 16 officers and 79 school security officers, who are responsible for policing OUSD’s 170 sites, including 101 school and 30 charter schools, which serve about 46,000 students.

Flint said the broad range of skills Williams acquired at the Oakland Housing Authority, where he worked as a community police officer, drug elimination officer and fraud investigator, as well as his experience working with a police force that is more unconventional than a typical city police department, helped make him the choice for the job. “He knows Oakland well and is regarded as a man of high integrity,” Flint said.

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