Toothless Wonder

Why S.F.'s police watchdog agency has never been effective - and why Prop. H won't change that

"It's beyond frustrating," says Malaika Parker, who heads Bay Area Police Watch, an independent watchdog group. "Anyone can see what happens. When someone from the [police] command staff gives a report, the commission is attentive, responsive, and polite. It's all very good-natured. But the minute a member of the public stands up and starts talking about police brutality, [the commissioners] stare through you like you're not even there." Van Jones, a veteran SFPD critic and executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, puts it succinctly. "You could put five goldfish in an aquarium and set them up on that rostrum, and they couldn't be any less responsive to the citizenry than this Police Commission."

As the civilian body appointed by the mayor (with confirmation by the Board of Supervisors), the commission has long been the main point of contact with citizens who have a beef with the SFPD. And common misperceptions about the OCC's autonomy to the contrary, the commission has the power to manage, organize, and reorganize the OCC as it sees fit. Owing its allegiance (until the passage of Prop. H, at least) exclusively to the mayor, it rarely challenges his authority or rejects his chosen police chief.

When it comes to holding police accountable, the commission's image under Brown and his predecessors for the past two decades has taken a beating along with that of the department. For years, the SFPD has promoted people to high posts who've been the targets of serious internal discipline or civil lawsuits alleging brutality or other civil rights violations. The foremost example is none other than the current chief. Fagan's 1990 confrontation with California Highway Patrol officers beside a San Mateo County freeway -- in which he grabbed one officer and resisted another's attempt to place him in a hold -- resulted in the commission's suspending him for 15 days and ordering him into 18 months' of alcohol treatment. But that didn't impede Fagan's ascent up the career ladder. In 2000 he was suspended for a month without pay as commander of Northern Station after he got in two traffic accidents on the same day and walked away from one of them. Brown nevertheless appointed him as the department's second-in-command last November, and two months ago, the commission rubber-stamped him as chief following Sanders' retirement.

New Boss Same as the Old Bosses?: Kevin 
Allen was named OCC director in April.
Brandon Fernandez
New Boss Same as the Old Bosses?: Kevin Allen was named OCC director in April.
Malaika Parker of Bay Area Police Watch 
says the Police Commission ignores 
Brandon Fernandez
Malaika Parker of Bay Area Police Watch says the Police Commission ignores complaints.

The commission's fecklessness under Brown has exhibited itself in other ways as well. For example, the panel did little to enforce its own 1999 order requiring police to collect data on the race of motorists pulled over by officers, until the ACLU in 2002 released a scathing report showing disparities in how black and Latino motorists were treated. That finally prompted the commission last November to order the department to ban police stops based on racial profiling and to submit monthly reports to guarantee that such profiling wasn't taking place.

In other instances, the panel has taken action in the face of public pressure only to reverse field when the tide of publicity has ebbed. A case in point occurred in March, at the apex of the clamor over the Fajitagate scandal, when the commission voted unanimously to have Deputy Chief Heather Fong draw up a list of outsiders to probe whether police commanders hindered the investigation of the street fight involving the three off-duty cops. But in June the commission quietly scuttled plans to bring in an outsider, opting instead to have the OCC review the matter. It isn't expected to do so until at least next month, by which time it will have been more than a year since the Union Street incident.

Commissioner Wayne Friday, the only one of the five panelists who responded to interview requests for this article, dismisses accusations that the commission is unresponsive. "We hear that all the time," he says. "People say, 'You're not doing anything. You guys are a bunch of so-and-sos.' But it just isn't true." He turns the criticism back on the panel's detractors, singling out Malaika Parker of Bay Area Police Watch and Mark Schlosberg of the ACLU. "They know what they're doing. They play for the TV cameras, and then they leave."

On paper, the Office of Citizen Complaints is impressive. By law, it must investigate every complaint it receives, currently about 1,000 per year, except for those that are clearly baseless. Police officers are required to cooperate with it. It has access to all police files, recommends discipline, makes policy recommendations, and publishes quarterly reports. It has a team of 15 investigators (among a staff of 32), the number of which is fixed by the city charter, which dictates that there be at least one OCC investigator for every 150 uniformed officers. Symbolic of its ostensible status as the Police Department's equal, its director, newly named Kevin Allen, an ex-public defender, sits at a table near one end of the commissioners' dais, as the chief sits at the same kind of table at the other end. But appearances are deceiving.

In reality, the OCC is more doormat than partner. Any doubt about the extent of the mismatch between it and the SFPD may have vanished in April with the release of a damning 84-page OCC report that provided a rare glimpse into just how unaccountable the cops in San Francisco have become. In detailing the meager level of police cooperation accorded it, the OCC also exposed, albeit unintentionally, the weakness of its own role.

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