Allegations that Alameda County's top probation official sexually assaulted a female deputy within his department have shocked the Bay Area's criminal justice community and may come as a blow to Gov. Jerry Brown's plans to shut down California's long-troubled youth prison system, observers said.
The county's chief probation officer, David Muhammad, was placed on paid leave Tuesday after a deputy filed a legal claim accusing him of grabbing her breast and penetrating her with his fingers last May. Muhammad on Wednesday called the accusations “completely false and outrageous” and told The Bay Citizen he was “extraordinarily confident” that he would be exonerated.
Muhammad, 38, who has spoken openly about his troubles with the law as a teenager in Oakland, has been a celebrity in local law enforcement circles since he came to Alameda County from New York City last year. Universities and civic leaders courted him for speaking engagements, and community groups threw parties in his honor. San Francisco’s chief of juvenile probation, William Siffermann, called him a “rock star.”
Part of what sets Muhammad apart is his vocal support of a plan, spearheaded by Brown, to close down the Division of Juvenile Justice and move the state’s most dangerous juvenile offenders to county programs. Probation chiefs and district attorneys have lobbied fiercely against the proposal, saying counties are not equipped to handle the state’s toughest youth. But Muhammad, a known reformer, has become the face of juvenile justice realignment in California.
In an interview with The Bay Citizen in December, he spoke of his intention to abandon DJJ and create a model juvenile incarceration program in Alameda: “We have 50 kids at DJJ, and we have a hundred empty beds in juvenile hall. We would like to take them back with funding from the state and create a separate program.”
Criminal justice experts struggled to reconcile the accusations with the energetic youth advocate they have known and worked with for years.
“He’s been the only probation chief I know about who said, ‘Bring my kids back home, I want them, I can handle them, I’m not going to let political concerns get in the way of doing the right thing,’” said David Steinhart, director of the Commonweal Juvenile Justice Program in Marin County. “Alameda County has the potential for being a forward model of making a DJJ closure work, and we don’t want anything to get in way of that.”
Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the University of California, Berkeley, called the allegations “a total shocker.”
“Muhammad is a nationally respected progressive who has really led the way for a lot of people,” Krisberg said.
“It’s devastating in a lot of ways,” said Sue Burrell, an attorney at the Youth Law Center in San Francisco. “He’s kind of the right guy at the right time, so I feel badly for everyone that this is happening right now.”
As the debate over DJJ has grown more contentious, reformers have continued to point to Muhammad and his efforts in Alameda County. He has been in talks with other Bay Area probation chiefs about starting pilot programs and using his county's detention centers as regional facilities for counties that lack adequate services for violent youth.
“Strong leadership is going to be crucial to realignment, and if you take someone like David Muhammad out of the picture, it’s going to be much more challenging,” said Kate McCracken, program director at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice in San Francisco. “Pilot sites — and David Muhammad has suggested this — are going to be important to show that counties can serve this population.”
In an interview with The Bay Citizen Wednesday, Muhammad declined to speak about the allegations against him, instead reiterating his commitment to reform. “The only reason I took this job is to make significant reform because, first, we can do such a good job, and second, the state does such a horrible job. Alameda has been on the forefront of this issue, and we’ll continue to be on the forefront,” he said.
Alameda County’s board of supervisors placed Muhammad on paid leave Tuesday after a deputy probation officer filed a $1.5 million claim accusing him of sexually assaulting and harassing her.
In a text message to The Bay Citizen Wednesday, Muhammad called the accusations “a clear attempt to extort payment from the county.”
In her claim, which is a preliminary step to filing a lawsuit, the deputy alleges that Muhammad harassed her at a probation office in Hayward on May 15, when he noticed a discoloration on her neck and joked about it, calling it a "hickey."
The officer said Muhammad put his hands on her twice that day, prompting her to exclaim to another deputy, "Did you see that? He grabbed me!"
The deputy alleged that four days later, Muhammad asked her to pick him up at Oakland International Airport and drive him to a speaking engagement in Oakland, but then instructed her to take him to the San Leandro Marina, which was empty at that time of day. She said Muhammad suddenly grabbed her head and started kissing her, telling her, "We would make some pretty babies."
The deputy said when she tried to pull back, Muhammad "became very aggressive" and pulled her shirt down, cupped her breast and started to kiss it and penetrated her vagina "forcefully" with two of his fingers.
She said that when she eventually pushed him away, he told her she had excited him sexually and said, "I want you so bad, you just don't know it."
The deputy said that a day later, on May 20, Muhammad sent her multiple text messages and that she reluctantly agreed to meet with him as long as they weren't alone, because she was worried about her job and what he might do to her if she ignored him.
She said in the claim that she met with Muhammad and his brother at a restaurant in Hayward and that at the end of the night he started to kiss her and grab her breasts and put his hand between her legs.
The deputy said she pushed his hand away but that he then grabbed her hand, placed it on his groin area and said she had excited him sexually.
She said she reiterated to Muhammad that she only wanted to be friends, and that Muhammad eventually left "angry and upset."
The claim says the deputy has suffered economic harm, distress and anguish. It accuses Muhammad of sexual assault, false imprisonment, gender violence, sexual battery, assault, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The California Attorney General's Office is conducting an investigation to determine whether criminal charges should be filed against Muhammad, according to spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill. Gledhill said the San Leandro Police Department investigated the deputy's allegations and then submitted its report to the Alameda County District Attorney's Office, which recused itself because it works closely with Muhammad.
Before his return to the Bay Area last year, Muhammad served as Deputy Commissioner of New York City's Department of Probation - Adult Services. Prior to that he was the Chief of Committed Services for the Department of Youth Rehabilitating Services in Washington, D.C.
The Bay City News Service contributed reporting.