Three Key Questions for the SF Board of Supervisors and Police Commission Joint Hearing on SFPD

On March 7, 2017, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and Police Commission will hold a joint hearing on the San Francisco Police Department at 3:00 pm at City Hall.

This will be the third joint hearing on SFPD accountability since October 2016 and the first since newly elected Supervisors and Chief Bill Scott were sworn in in January 2017.

In the fall of 2016 Supervisor Malia Cohen pressed for joint hearings to ensure the Department implements the recommendations of the US Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency Accountability and Fairness in Law Enforcement, and the Grand Jury Report on fatal officer involved shootings in San Francisco.

The first hearing on October 4, 2016 shone light on SFPD’s long history of misconduct and thwarted reform attempts.

Local pressure for SFPD accountability is paramount given the election of 45, with his endorsements by the National Fraternal Order of Police, the Border Patrol Union, the National Rifle Association, and the Ku Klux Klan. Attorney General Jeff Sessions remarked last week:

“”To confront the challenge of rising crime, we must rely heavily on local law enforcement to lead the way — and they must know they have our steadfast support. For the federal government, that means this: rather than dictating to local police how to do their jobs — or spending scarce federal resources to sue them in court — we should use our money, research and expertise to help them figure out what is happening and determine the best ways to fight crime.” — US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, February 27, 2017

It is imperative that the Supervisors and Police Commission press hard for SFPD accountability at this hearing.

In 2016, the community expressed our outrage at SFPD’s racism and brutality and experts listened and created detailed blueprints of what needs to change at SFPD. Mario Woods execution by firing squad — coming on the heels of the brutality exhibited in the killings of Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez Lopez- shocked San Franciscans into action. Yet despite our fierce activism, SPFD killed three more people in 2016: Luis Gongora Pat, Jessica Nelson Williams, and Nicholas McWherter.

We the people must pressure our officials to ensure the changes get made. As Frederick Douglass famously observed, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”

Here are some key questions and the officials who should be asked:

Question for Joyce Hicks, Director of the Department of Police Accountability:

What audits of SFPD has your office initiated?

Joyce Hicks has served as Director of the Department of Police Accountability, previously known as the Office of Civilian Complaints, since 2007.

The Blue Ribbon Panel pointed out the lack of meaningful audit as the most glaring deficiency at SFPD and recommended that San Francisco create an Office of Inspector General of SFPD with real teeth.

Instead, on November 8, 2016 San Francisco voters passed Proposition G which, among other measures, renamed the Office of Civilian Complaints (OCC) the “Department of Police Accountability (DPA)” and granted the DPA audit powers the OCC did not have. At least every two years the DPA must review the San Francisco Police Department’s use-of-force policies and its handling of claims of police misconduct. The DPA Director also has the discretion to audit or review any SFPD policy, procedure or practice.

San Francisco voters deserve to know if Director Hicks is exercising her newfound authority or if the renaming was window dressing that will have no lasting impact on SFPD. Reports have surfaced that DPA staff are deeply disgruntled with Director Hicks’ leadership and find the agency ineffective under her direction.

Question for District Attorney George Gascon:

When will you make charging decisions in the 11 open cases of SFPD fatal officer involved shootings dating to September 2014 your office is currently investigating?

Into the Open: Opportunities for More Transparent and Timely Investigations of SFPD Officer Involved Shootings

This chart from June 2016 shows the duration between officer involved shootings and the DA’s office issuing of charging determinations. Fatal shootings are in red. Not included: Nicholas McWherter, fatally shot by SFPD on October 14, 2017

The June 2016 Grand Jury Report on investigations of officer involved shootings (OIS) found that the public has a crisis of confidence in SFPD because “investigations of fatal OIS incidents take too long; and the public has access to very little information both about the general process by which OIS incidents are investigated and about each individual fatal OIS investigation.”

Delays in criminal prosecutions are particularly problematic because no other disciplinary action can occur until the criminal investigation is completed.

In other words, while DA Gascon takes his sweet time, killer officers are STILL WORKING for SFPD.

District Attorney George Gascon responded to the Grand Jury by claiming he did not have the resources to conduct timely investigations. The City then allocated $1.5 million to his office to staff a new unit dedicated to investigating and prosecuting SFPD officers. The team has been hired.

But not a single indictment has been made in the 11 cases of fatal SFPD officer involved shootings currently open, despite Gascon’s litany of promises to activists that charging decisions would be made “in a few weeks.”

Justice delayed is justice denied. San Francisco taxpayers deserve to know how long we have to wait to have confidence in SFPD.

Questions for Chief Bill Scott:

We allocated SFPD budget to hire 400 officers between July 2016 to July 2018. Have you fired the problem officers and fixed the recruiting and hiring problems identified by the Blue Ribbon Panel before recruiting these new officers? When will the promised audit of officer text messages begin?

Invitation to SFPD recruitment event at Georgia State University on March 30, 2017

SFPD is on a hiring spree without having fired killer officers. And among the most troubling findings of the Blue Ribbon Panel were the operational deficiencies in SFPD recruiting and hiring, including background investigations being conducted by retired SFPD officers with “outdated attitudes and a racial makeup that is not representative of the police” and with no transparency or clear procedures.

In order for us to have confidence, the public needs to know if SFPD has cleaned up its existing force and fixed its hiring practices before bringing on these new officers.

Further troubling is that it is unclear what steps SFPD leadership has taken to change the culture of SFPD so that officers know that sending text messages like these is completely unacceptable:

Text messages exchanged between SFPD officers, discovered in an unrelated investigation, March 2016.

Back in May 2016, the US Department of Justice COPS office told SFPD it should conduct an audit of officers text messages to determine if additional officers are exchanging racist messages. Two unrelated investigations had revealed two sets of officers sending and receiving texts like these, pointing to a widespread problem. COPS repeated this recommendation in October 2017 when it released its report. But as of December 2017, Captain Michael Connolly of SFPD’s Professional Standards and Principled Policing Bureau, said of the text message audit “I’m not even sure if it’s begun.”

The public needs to have confidence in the culture of SFPD. Currently that is impossible with SFPD, and leadership will not know the depth of the problem until they conduct the audit US Department of Justice recommended. Mayor Lee promised the Department would make good on all 272 recommendations of USDOJ, and the text message audit must be a priority.

There are many more issues I hope will come to light at the hearing, among them:

But I believe the three questions I raise in this post and whether or not they are asked and answered will give the strongest indicator of how serious our public officials are about transforming SFPD.

I hope you show up for the hearing and ask these questions yourself. SFPD will never change unless we the people demand it. Tuesday, March 7, 2017, 3:00 PM at City Hall Room 250.

Karen Fleshman is a Racial Equity Trainer and Government Accountability Advocate. Her mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America. She offers talks and workshops at companies, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies and blogs on Huffington Post and Medium. She is a co-founder of San Franciscans for Police Accountability and often testifies to the San Francisco Police Commission and Board of Supervisors.

www.karenfleshman.com @fleshmankaren