San Francisco Dangerously Behind the Times on Police Oversight

After many dramatic public vows to reform the San Francisco Police Department’s culture and use of force policies following the Mario Woods shooting, this morning’s City Hall hearing was the first step toward deciding what exactly will be done. 

The tentative verdict is that San Francisco is so far behind the times on police oversight that now we even have to start taking lessons from Oakland.

[jump] Lawmakers fielded pitches on effective reform, first from Aaron Zisser, a former Department of Justice attorney specializing in civil rights for the mentally ill, who testified that the most important thing is to start watching the watchmen.

“We need reviews of reviews,” Zisser says. Not only should independent groups be conducting “duplicate investigations” of police shootings themselves, but Zisser also recommends that auditors peer over cops’ shoulders while they’re investigating in their own right, saying that in this day and age, “we can’t rely just on the first level of investigation.”

He also noted that the practice of setting a standard and letting it age like good wine should go. “Policies in some communities that are reviewed and updated annually,” according to Zisser. SFPD’s use of force protocols haven’t been updated since 1995, very nearly a different epoch in public policy terms.

Julie Traun, presenting on behalf of the Bar Association of San Francisco’s criminal justice task force, says that “data, data, data” is what we need. Compared to other regional police departments, San Francisco’s methods for tracking officers’ on-the-job behavior are close to medieval.

“Over in Oakland, Assistant Police Chief Paul Figueroa showed us their new system,” Traun says. “They can put an officer’s name into a database and not only retrieve reports on that officer’s civilian interactions going back years —including the race of the suspect, the location of the stop, whether there was a search, and whether anything was found — but they also get thousands of hours of body camera footage.”

That OPD database is designed to automatically scan officers’ records for red flags about implicit bias. “Put in an officer’s name, there are his markers,” says Traun.

Of course, she notes OPD started cleaning up their act less out of the kindness of their hearts and more to alleviate a decade plus of federal arm-twisting. But the point is, they’ve got a good system. San Jose, too, will soon implement a system that can recover data on any police officer stop “in 90 seconds or less.”

Joyce Hicks, executive director of the Office of Citizen Complaints, had a novel suggestion: People could start listening to her. Hicks says her department filed recommendations for years, including throwing out the “21-foot rule” that instructs officers to regard anyone with a bladed weapon within seven yards as a potential threat.

She says they even pushed the department to come up with a specific training video about how to handle mentally ill suspects armed with a knife, and to train dispatchers on what questions to ask to determine if a suspect might be mentally ill. “Back in 2012,” she adds.

Hicks says cops need to learn “tactical positioning — a euphemism for retreat” when they believe they’re threatened. Encouraging them to “charge in” when there’s danger fosters a culture of force.

Notably absent from the hearing was Police Chief Greg Suhr. There was some confusion about whether he was expected to attend, but his office says it was never on his schedule.

Captain Greg Yee, head of the department’s training division, spoke instead, saying that the department’s 21-year-old use of force policy would soon be revised. Nobody sounded impressed, but he did manage to get through the whole thing with only two angry outbursts from the crowd, well below par for a ranking San Francisco cop at a public gathering these days.

Speaking of which, the Police Commission will hold the first of several public hearings of their own tonight, 6:00 p.m., at the Third Baptist Church on McAllister Street. Assuming they don’t all come down with the same mysterious, fast-acting flu and cancel, after the fireworks at last night’s regular meeting.

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