SFPD Gets a New Watchdog

The federal government abandoned its task to oversee S.F.’s much-needed police reforms, but the state of California is picking up the pieces.

SFPD has been tasked with implementing hundreds of recommendations to reform its policing tactics.. Photo by Cindy Chew

Since Donald Trump became
president, California has been forced to fill gaps in funding and support, as the federal government reneges on its duties to focus on kicking undocumented immigrants out of the country and destroying healthcare.

First there was the threat of losing the $1.2 billion in federal funding San Francisco receives every year, due to its sanctuary-city status. Mayor Ed Lee promised to find other sources for the money, so his constituents wouldn’t suffer from any fallout.

Then, in September, the U.S. Department of Justice abandoned its oversight of the San Francisco Police Department’s reform, less than one year after it created a list of 272 recommendations to improve our city’s troubled force — and halfway through drafting a report to let us all know how it was going.

Calls for police reform reached a breaking point in 2016, after several fatal police shootings of minorities rocked the city, and a series of racist text messages sent between officers went public. After 29-year-old Jessica Williams was shot in a stolen car in May 2016, Police Chief Greg Suhr was forced to resign, and trust between the community and SFPD was at a critical low.

At the request of Mayor Lee, then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and the U.S. DOJ conducted a comprehensive review of SFPD, and created a list of urgent changes that centered around five main categories: use of force, racial bias, community policing, transparency, and accountability.

From mandatory implicit bias trainings to quarterly, publicly available reports on officers using force, it appeared that SFPD was finally on its way to becoming a better department, with the federal government looking over its shoulder like a critical teacher.

But when Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended that oversight in September to focus resources on preventing violent crime, SFPD found itself adrift, in possession of a list of tools needed to change, but no one to ensure their implementation.

Now, the state is stepping in.

On Monday, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced that his office would take on the oversight of SFPD’s 272 recommendations, with the blessing of Mayor Mark Farrell and Police Chief William Scott.

“When local law enforcement agencies reach out for support, the last thing our federal government should do is abandon them,” Becerra said. “This agreement with the city and SFPD is critical for public safety. It serves as a prime example of state and local authorities collaborating in the absence of help from Washington.”

While the shifting governmental parties at play make an interesting story in their own right, it’s the trickle-down effect of police reform that matters most to the residents of San Francisco. And those taking a leading role in making sure that happens — on our streets and in our communities — are, more often than not, women.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed and Supervisor Malia Cohen highlighted this at a press conference Monday announcing California’s takeover of the police reform policies. Cohen, in particular, has been instrumental in instituting new policing measures at City Hall; she drafted the legislation that created a Department of Police Accountability, and pushed for data on police arrests and use of force.

But she didn’t come by this cause accidentally — it was the residents of her district who’ve been pushing for these changes that inspired her.

“This work has been going on for generations, and it’s been going on unnoticed,” said Cohen, whose district includes the Bayview and Hunters Point. “There are people in the community I represent that have been crying out for generations for justice, for transparency. Today feels good because it’s a culmination of all those tears, the blood that’s been spilled, that policies are stepping up and catching up.”

And of those active, vocal members of the community, Cohen says it’s women who deserve much of the credit.

“It was, quite frankly, the work of women that brought us to where we are today,” she said, nearly losing her composure as she glanced at her constituents in the audience. “It’s the mothers that remind us that we must get these murders solved. It’s the mothers that remind us of why we do what we do.”

Breed highlighted how her upbringing in the Western Addition has informed her view of policing.

“I’ve seen firsthand the consequences that stem from a lack of trust between communities of color and law enforcement agents,” she said. “No policy alone can ever account for every possible scenario. But we clearly have work to do.”

Becerra and the California DOJ has their work cut out for them. But the SFPD at least appears to be willing to improve its troubled department. In a press release, they announced that in 2017, complaints to the Department of Police Accountability dropped 8.5 percent. Use-of-force reports are now published quarterly. And officers are being closely monitored: All department-owned cell phones, email accounts, and patrol car terminals are automatically screened for biased language. Any violations are automatically forwarded to internal investigations for follow up.

In an idealistic world, this effort to improve the police department will positively benefit everyone. “Our residents and our police officers all want the same thing: They want our city, our families, and our communities to be safe,” Breed said. “These are unprecedented times, but I am more hopeful than ever.”

Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editornsawyer@sfweekly.com |  @TheBestNuala

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