Trial by Error
Police Commission President John Keker's flustered resignation has focused needed attention on a chaotic police discipline system that has allowed didactic, cop-hating lefties and self-serving police union officials to shred civility and reason.
Keker's ideas for reforming the system deserve attention. (One noteworthy notion: bringing in lawyers and judges as independent hearing officers and thereby removing the Police Commission and its politics from at least the trial portion of misconduct cases.) But tweaks in the system are not a cure-all. In fact, in many cases it's the quality of the people who run the system, and the rank quality of their decisions, that are the real impediments to effective oversight of police behavior.
The current debate over police discipline is largely the result of one bad cop and one misconduct case -- the in-custody death of robbery suspect Aaron Williams, S.F.'s Rodney King. In that incident, 12 officers subdued Williams, an African-American man, beat him, doused him with pepper spray, and left him unattended in the back of a police van, where he died of cardiac arrest. An autopsy said the death was hastened by cocaine use. Those protesting Williams' demise think all that beating and pepper-spraying might have had something to do with the death.
The bad cop in question, the poster boy for reform, is Marc Andaya.
But the Andaya problem began long before Aaron Williams' death reached the San Francisco Police Commission. A series of stupid, cowardly, and corrupt official decisions, starting the moment Andaya applied to transfer to S.F. from the Oakland Police Department and continuing through two tumultuous trials before the Police Commission, led us to where we are today: amid a political firestorm started when Andaya skated around unnecessary-use-of-force charges and then was suspended for just three months after a second trial on a lesser charge, even though Chief Fred Lau recommended his dismissal.
Regardless of one's position on the punishment, there's plenty of blame to be apportioned for the Andaya fiasco.
Let's start with former Police Chief Anthony Ribera, whose retirement package should be used to pay for the cost of Andaya's trials.
A hiring committee that included a police investigator and a psychiatrist found Andaya, a former Army Special Forces officer, unfit to serve when he first applied to be a San Francisco cop in 1994. The committee uncovered one brutality complaint related to Andaya's days on the Oakland force and suspected there were more. His interviews with the psychiatrist also went poorly, a ranking police source with knowledge of the committee's recommendation says.
But the police source says Ribera overruled the hiring committee, bringing its background investigation of Andaya to a halt. (There is speculation that the order to stop the investigation involved minority hiring; Andaya is Filipino, and his employment would have allowed the hiring of several white officers, under equal opportunity guidelines then used by the Police Department.)
Whatever Ribera's reasoning, it is clear that the then-chief stopped the background probe before investigators could document what is now known about Andaya -- that he had a lengthy misconduct record with the Oakland force, and that some of the allegations of wrongdoing involved racial epithets and brutality. (In one 1984 incident, Andaya stopped a man for a psychiatric evaluation and after a tussle shot the suspect nine times, reloading his gun in the process.)
Ribera turned Andaya from "unacceptable" to "acceptable" in the wave of a hand and created a problem that continues to convulse law enforcement in the city.
Next in line for spanking is Keker himself. When the Office of Citizen Complaints forwarded the Williams case to the Police Commission, Keker, an experienced trial attorney, made a horrible blunder. Ignoring the advice of other commissioners and without explaining himself, he tried all the officers at the same time in two separate trials, one on the allegation of unnecessary force, and the other on a charge that the officers did not properly care for Williams.
It's hard to imagine a worse decision.
First, the mass trials blended Andaya's act -- an enthusiastic beating and pepper-spraying spree that was by far the most questionable police behavior exhibited that night -- with the less severe behavior of other officers. And second, Keker's decision assured that the commission would see the alleged misconduct only in discrete chunks, in much the way a Simi Valley jury saw the Rodney King episode as a deconstructed series of actions and reactions, rather than one vicious beating.
If Keker created a procedural problem, Police Commissioner Jose Medina earned a Spineless Jellyfish Award for ducking the commission meeting where he would have had to vote on the first charge against Andaya, unnecessary use of force. (Medina resigned before he would have to vote on the case, having won a seat on the Board of Supervisors in November and saying he wanted time off with his family before being sworn in as a supe.)
The commission vote was 2 to 2. The equivalent of a mistrial was declared. A second trial was required, guaranteeing the political heat surrounding the case would only increase.
Queuing up for the blame gauntlet next: the very agency that brought the case against Andaya in the first place, the Office of Citizen Complaints. Mary Dunlap, the usually sage OCC director, chose to treat the misconduct proceedings like a criminal trial, where prior bad actions are often inadmissible, and failed to tell police commissioners about Andaya's stunning record of misconduct in Oakland.