Toothless Wonder

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

After a lengthy investigation, the OCC agreed and asked then-Police Chief Frank Jordan to press misconduct charges against Achim. But as a harbinger of cases that have long diminished the OCC's effectiveness, a parallel probe by the SFPD's internal affairs unit concluded that no discipline was necessary. When it came time for the Police Commission to render a decision, Jordan threatened to resign rather than punish Achim. As part of a pattern from which it has rarely departed, the commission sided with the chief. In an outcome that has since become all too familiar, Huerta won an $825,000 lawsuit settlement -- the largest ever against the Police Department.

Keane insists that it wasn't until the 1990s "that there was anything approaching a legitimate attempt" within the OCC to make the agency function as voters intended. Arriving as director in 1996, civil rights attorney and law professor Mary Dunlap, who died in January after a struggle with pancreatic cancer, is credited with having turned the agency around from its years of wandering in the wilderness. She was praised for improving professionalism and for a willingness to at least take on police brass (even if unsuccessfully) in cases in which her predecessors were more likely to take a pass.

For the past two years during Dunlap's illness, and until Kevin Allen was appointed director in April, the agency was run more or less by committee, with three of Dunlap's former top aides sharing responsibility. But as the OCC's own dismal appraisal of the cooperation it receives from the Police Department reveals, the agency -- while having shaken off the torpor it had under Schober -- has hardly approached the promise invested in it 20 years ago. "For too long [the] OCC was supposed to be a watchdog and it was really a lap dog," says former ACLU attorney John Crew. "I would say it's a work in progress."

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.

Whenever social worker and police reform advocate Mesha Monge-Irizarry needs an example of how unaccountable San Francisco's cops have become, she need look no further than a picture of her dead son.

Her son, Idriss Stelley, 23, had gone to the movies at the Metreon with his girlfriend on June 13, 2001. An honors computer student and volunteer tutor, he had a long history of depression that, among other things, had resulted in his being drummed out of the Navy the year before. Stelley was off his medications when he had a psychotic episode at the theater that day. The girlfriend called Stelley's mom, who told her to call police. Monge-Irizarry, whose work with substance abusers and the homeless over the years made her well-versed in cop vernacular, calmly instructed the girlfriend to tell police that it was a "5150," law enforcement lingo for a mental health situation.

Stelley kissed his girlfriend and asked her to leave the theater. He also stood up and asked the other patrons to leave. By the time cops arrived -- nine of them -- he was there alone. There were no witnesses other than police to what happened next. But what is known is that three of the cops pumped 10 bullets into Stelley. They said that he was swinging a knifelike instrument with a 2-inch blade on the end of a chain and that he lunged at them as they approached him near the back of the theater. The officers later said that they'd used pepper spray, but that Stelley was wearing glasses and it didn't seem to faze him. Two of the cops tried and failed to knock the weapon from his hand with their batons, they said. In all, at least 20 shots were fired -- a deadly hail that also left one officer wounded in the leg and buttocks.

"Someone called for mental health, and they sent in the cavalry," says Andy Schwartz, the attorney who represented the Stelley family in a lawsuit against the Police Department. After cremating her son, Monge-Irizarry filed a complaint with the OCC. To this day, she doesn't know if any misconduct charges were sustained. If they were, they never made it past the department brass. In fact, it was only after much public kicking and screaming that the SFPD agreed, two months after the tragedy, to release the names of the officers who were present at the theater that night.

Not surprisingly, no one in an official capacity has ever hinted that police may have overreacted when they blew away a mentally distressed student on a date during a screening of the movie Swordfish. But in textbook fashion for San Francisco, the Police Commission in June of this year quietly put the matter to rest. Meeting behind closed doors, the commissioners approved a $500,000 settlement with Stelley's family in which the cops acknowledged no wrongdoing. Monge-Irizarry used some of the money to set up the Idriss Stelley Foundation, which provides services to families of those who have been disabled or killed by police. But she hardly calls the outcome justice. "The Police Commission and the OCC are set up to go through the motions," she says. "Does anyone in power really want to hold the police responsible? I don't think so."

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