Toothless Wonder

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

Its report describes an "epidemic" of police defiance of the agency, including the department's stiff-arming of OCC investigators for weeks and even months over simple document requests that could be handled in hours or days. It details how officers refused to cooperate with civilian investigators in an astonishing 63 cases last year. In 29 of those cases, the cops never even bothered to show up for hearings. And that was the good news. Police brushed off the OCC in 88 cases the year before.

Chief Fagan has pledged to "fix" the problem. But the SFPD's inability, or unwillingness, to police itself continues to be a huge embarrassment. In a stunning revelation the day after the election, the department acknowledged that its record-keeping in cop misconduct cases is in disarray. Facing uncharacteristically hostile questions from commissioners, Capt. Dennis O'Leary, who heads the SFPD's internal affairs arm, admitted that case files were found to have been "lying around" for months at department headquarters. He could not say, even now, whether all of the 60 active cases submitted to the department by the OCC had been accounted for.

The development was all the more startling since OCC sources had privately said that the SFPD's cooperation with the agency had improved somewhat in recent months. But others, noting the microscope under which the Police Department has operated since Fajitagate, and the incentive Fagan undoubtedly has to score points in hopes of keeping his job should front-runner Newsom emerge as mayor from the Dec. 9 runoff, are skeptical as to whether improvements, if they exist, will last. "What's happening at the moment isn't the important thing," says attorney John Crew, who spent 15 years monitoring police abuse for the ACLU. "It's what happens next year and beyond."

As Unresponsive as Sphinxes: Police 
Commissioners Sidney Chan, Victor 
Makras, President Connie Perry, and 
Wayne Friday (Commissioner Angelo 
Quaranta not shown).
Brandon Fernandez
As Unresponsive as Sphinxes: Police Commissioners Sidney Chan, Victor Makras, President Connie Perry, and Wayne Friday (Commissioner Angelo Quaranta not shown).
Mesha Monge-Irizarry in front of a photo of 
her son, Idriss Stelley, slain by police in 
Brandon Fernandez
Mesha Monge-Irizarry in front of a photo of her son, Idriss Stelley, slain by police in 2001.

Created by voter initiative in 1982 after years of public frustration at the lack of police accountability, the OCC has never lived up to its promise. It has been a political orphan from the time it opened its doors in 1983. Former Mayor Feinstein, who then (as now) enjoyed the loyalty of the politically powerful San Francisco Police Officers Association, had opposed it. "It was an uphill battle and a testimony to the frustration people felt about the police that [the initiative creating the OCC] managed to pass," former Supervisor Harry Britt recalls. Britt struck a deal with the police union to take a neutral stance on the '82 initiative in return for his support of two measures affecting police pensions and overtime. Otherwise, the OCC vote may never have gotten over the hump.

But neither the cops who bristled at the prospect of civilian oversight nor politicians more concerned with currying the police union's favor than with promoting genuine police reform have had much to worry about. Implanted within a structure that reduced the agency to playing 90-pound weakling to the Police Department's Mr. Universe, the OCC would have almost certainly been ineffective even if Feinstein and the three men who succeeded her as mayor -- Art Agnos, Frank Jordan, and Brown -- hadn't assigned civilian police oversight a low priority.

During its first few years the agency was so ineffectual that its existence was scarcely even noticed. For the first five years, the OCC director literally didn't have a seat at the table during Police Commission meetings. Critics complained that its first director, Eugene Swann, who lasted barely a year, was unable or unwilling to make a dent in a growing backlog of citizen complaints, rarely holding hearings.

His successor, Frank Schober, who had headed the California National Guard under former Gov. Jerry Brown, shocked reform advocates by openly disagreeing with the OCC's watchdog mission. "There's absolutely no track record of any measurable output or performance by the OCC during its first four or five years, and that's no exaggeration," says Peter Keane, dean of the Golden Gate University law school. Keane was president of the Bar Association of San Francisco in the late 1980s when a few frustrated OCC staffers approached his group with tales of the agency's dysfunction. As a result, several influential lawyers friendly with Feinstein persuaded her to get rid of Schober in 1987.

By then the OCC had become a joke. Voters had envisioned that the agency would be autonomous and beyond the influence of the SFPD. But it quickly had become a police cheerleader. Schober took over promising to hold hearings on backlogged complaints and to move quickly on a number of celebrated brutality cases ignored under his predecessor. But few hearings ever materialized. Instead, the agency degenerated into a public relations arm of the Police Department.

The OCC's quarterly newsletter read like a police trade journal, its pages brimming with puff pieces extolling the SFPD for a job well done. It included coupons that the public was invited to cut out and use to vote for the OCC's "Cop of the Month." The agency even used funds from its meager budget to hire professional models to pose as police officers for billboards that were placed on Muni buses and at strategic locations around town. Neither did the OCC's image improve much under Schober's successor. Although the obsequious newsletter and cop-fawning PR campaigns were retired, the agency came away looking impotent when it finally rose up and went head-to-head with the police in a high-profile case. In 1988, United Farm Workers Union leader Dolores Huerta was nearly clubbed to death by cops trying to disperse a demonstration in front of the St. Francis Hotel. News reports suggested her ruptured spleen and rib fractures were the result of having been batoned by Tac Squad officer Francis Achim. Huerta and the ACLU filed complaints with the OCC alleging, among other things, that Achim had used excessive force.

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