I returned to civilization last night from a five-day, blissfully unplugged vacation to hear what you may well know by now: Pete Sarna, the chief of the Oakland school district’s police force, has retired at 41 following accusations that he made shocking racist statements to an African-American sergeant in his force while under the influence of alcohol.
The two police officers were riding home — with a designated driver and another sergeant, who filed the complaint — after drinking at a charity golf event.
Sarna’s attorney said her client had an alcohol problem. It’s not the first time it’s blown up publicly, damaging his career. In 2007, he stepped down from his post with the Department of Justice after a car crash and DUI citation in Walnut Creek.
Less than two weeks before the incident, I met with Sarna to go over some statistics he had gathered about homicides in Oakland. He gave me a tour of the school district’s police headquarters at the old Cole Middle School, with its new fitness room and command center, complete with a wall of flat screen monitors, showing security camera shots from around the city.
He pointed proudly to photos of his children — two sets of twins — framed on his desk. His wife is African-American, and his children are biracial.
Sarna wanted me to do a story about what he had done for the police force, which was once housed in an old portable, and what the force had done for the community — especially in the African-American neighborhood where the police HQ moved last year. Right outside the headquarters is a shiny new baseball diamond, basketball hoops, play structure and vacant portable-turned-library. Last year, I wrote about the free summer camp he and his officers started for kids with nothing to do.
“We’re like a modern police department now,” he said.
Eleven days later, according to the attorney for the officer who filed the complaint, Sarna called an African-American sergeant a racial slur “several times, told him that he had no right to live in (the area) because he’s African-American, although he didn’t use that word, told him he should be hung in the town square because he’s African-American … told him that he would be the last African-American he’d ever hire.”
Sarna apologized for his words in a letter to the Oakland school board.
“My words hurt not only those who heard them but also the entire community I have tried to serve as police chief of the Oakland Unified School District,” Sarna said. “I make no excuses for my behavior and no explanations. There simply is no excuse for the hurtful words I used and no explanation for behavior so at odds with whom I believe myself to be.”
But regardless of what prompted the tirade — or how he really feels about a group of people whom his officers are responsible for protecting — he can’t take it back.