The Furor Over Remembering Mario Woods - July 27, 2016 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

The Furor Over Remembering Mario Woods

In February, San Francisco's police union published a curious cartoon.

Its illustrators drew a judge looking down at a lawyer swearing in the witness: a cellphone. “So you swear to show the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” read the caption.

The one-image cartoon seemed to encapsulate a contradictory vision of the world of policing: the central role video now plays in the way police are seen in the public eye, and a refusal to accept what the video reveals.

The page 3 cartoon was well-placed. It appeared in the same February edition of the San Francisco Police Officers Association Journal that denounced a city resolution memorializing Mario Woods, a man whose death at the hands of police was caught on video.

The front-page article denouncing the Board of Supervisors for their unanimous passage of the resolution may have been inadvertently paired with the cartoon — but the link is hard to ignore.

“Supervisor David Campos … has now introduced an insulting and debasing resolution,” wrote union head Martin Halloran. “Mr. Campos and the majority of his colleagues on the Board of Supervisors are seeking a 'Day of Remembrance' for a convicted felon, validated gang member, [and] indiscriminate predator, who allegedly attempted to murder an innocent victim in the Bayview.”

As many of the supervisors said before voting to make July 22 Mario Woods Day, it was impossible not to be affected by a killing caught on video no matter whether Woods had a record.

“Multiracial firing squad,” is how Supervisor Malia Cohen described it.

Cellphone videos showed a group of police officers opening fire and killing Woods in the Bayview on Dec. 2. Woods was armed with a knife but did not raise it — and, if anything, seemed more disturbed than dangerous.

What followed was a full-blown battle over reforming the department, which has not ended.

The union's rancor remained alive and well last Friday. Aside from its full-page ad in the Chronicle calling for a day of remembrance for officers instead of Woods, it held a counter-memorial for cops who have died on duty.

But amid the ongoing back-and-forth over whether or not Woods' life deserves civic commemoration, there has been a debate rooted more in ideology than anything else.

The friction between these dueling visions of the world is less about the facts — even if they are important and should not be ignored — and more about the ideological lens each side of this debate is wearing.

On the one hand, activists, and even the Board of Supervisors, see a need for reforms when a disproportionate number of arrests and stops are of minorities, and numerous police shooting incidents seem to result in little punishment for police.

On the other hand, the union doesn't seem to see recent fatal shootings or biased text message scandals as anything but bad apples at work.

All one needs to do to see this mismatch is listen to a story told earlier this year by former union president Gary Delagnes. At a forum on police and the media at the University of San Francisco, Delagnes said he'd never seen racism at work in his decades on the force.

Then he proceeded to tell a very peculiar story that contradicted his assertion.

When he was a trainee cop, Delagnes said, his training officer would drop the N-bomb left and right. But he wasn't a racist. That's because that same officer bought a poor black family a dog. When he found out the family's dog had been run over, he acted.

If handing out puppies — much as the department still hands out turkeys at housing projects before before Thanksgiving — was all it took to reform the department, then the SFPD would have reached the Promised Land long ago.