Why the Feds' Review of the SFPD Might Not Matter

When Mayor Ed Lee announced on Feb. 1 that the Department of Justice would review the San Francisco Police Department, many community activists expected a wholesale investigation. At minimum, they expected the department to be held accountable for the Dec. 2 police shooting of Mario Woods, whose death sparked protests and calls for police Chief Greg Suhr's resignation.

But instead of a Ferguson- or Baltimore-style probe, San Francisco police will get a “collaborative review” that watchdogs deride as toothless. Even worse, the feds won't look into the Woods shooting (although three local investigations are pending).

The DoJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which is conducting the review, doesn't have the authority to enforce any recommendations. In fact, adopting those recommendations is voluntary. Nor will the agency monitor the SFPD once the review is over to ensure that any recommended reforms are made.

Alan Schlosser, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, welcomes federal intervention but is skeptical that a COPS review can change the SFPD's entrenched culture.

“San Francisco cops have had hours and hours of training about racial bias,” he says. “It's not a problem of policy or training. Chief Suhr has not created a culture where cops are held accountable for their misconduct.”

As examples, Schlosser cites the 14 officers whose racist and homophobic text messages came to light in 2015. While Suhr attempted to fire the officers involved, Schlosser believes they're “the tip of the iceberg” as far as police impropriety is concerned. The SFPD's Office of Citizen Complaints is another hurdle. According to testimony that OCC director Joyce Hicks delivered before District Attorney George Gascon's “blue ribbon” investigatory panel in January, none of the 250 racial bias complaints lodged with the OCC since 2011 has been sustained.

In addition, California has strict laws regarding access to officers' disciplinary records. While Suhr has pledged to cooperate, Schlosser argues the SFPD could stymie COPS' effort to make meaningful policy recommendations.

In Baltimore, a COPS review was underway when Freddie Gray, an African-American man, died of a spinal injury while in police custody on April 19, 2015. Lester Davis, deputy chief of staff for Bernard Young, president of the Baltimore City Council, says that a COPS review was inadequate for real reform in his city.

“The issues in the department are systemic and longstanding, and the only way to fix them is to have the full weight of law behind us,” Davis says, adding that “in a collaborative review, both sides are looking for concessions, and we didn't want any concessions.”

The DoJ subsequently launched a still-ongoing “pattern or practice” investigation of the Baltimore Police Department, which will result in mandatory, enforceable changes for both commanders and rank-and-file officers.

Taina Vargas-Edmond, of Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, wants the same for the SFPD. She dismisses the COPS review as “symbolic.”

“If they were serious about reform, they'd have a full civil rights review with teeth,” she says.

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