Why the police commission doesn't discipline bad cops

The Police Commission has become a Triple-A farm league for San Francisco politics. Batting for the current Board of Supervisors is former commissioner and Harvard Law alum David Campos. Campaigning to represent District 6 on the board is former commission president Theresa Sparks, onetime chief of a global toxic cleanup firm and an international sex toy company. Looking ripe for a move to the majors, meanwhile, is MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and commission president Joe Marshall, who said, “At this point, there are no ideas about other public office. If I decide to do something, I'll let folks know.”

Despite its contributions to the city's political brain trust, the talent factory that has readied these people for political leadership is a mess. Even its beneficiaries admit it needs fixing.

The commission's role as San Francisco's political minor league has actually obstructed its real purpose of setting police department policy and meting out discipline to officers accused of wrongdoing. It has been failing at that role for some time now, allowing cops to linger in limbo for years as a case backlog grows.

“It's a system that's broken,” said Sparks, who became one of the world's most prominent transgender women thanks to her tenure as commission president, which ended last year.

“I think there should be reform,” said Campos, who rose to political prominence while on the police commission and quit to become a supervisor in Dec. 2008.

“It just doesn't work very well,” Marshall said.

What these officials won't acknowledge, however, is that problems with the police commission could be fixed simply by excluding people like them (i.e., busy professionals with day jobs). San Francisco should return it to its century-old role as a boring body of functionaries who got the job done on time and were paid a decent salary for doing so.

Under the current system, the commission doesn't monitor whether its own members actually do their jobs and hold disciplinary hearings, so an agency set up to evaluate the performance of city employees provides no way of evaluating itself.

Since the beginning of this year, Police Chief George Gascón and other officials have spoken of reforming a police commission that has seen so many delays in disciplinary proceedings that cases can drag on for years. To cite an egregious example, it wasn't until last May that Captain Greg Corrales was cleared of charges that he'd undermined an investigation into the 2002 “Fajitagate” fight on Union Street. As of this month, around three dozen cases are awaiting decisions from the commission on whether to suspend, fire, or absolve officers accused of misdeeds. Last year, the number of cases hovered around 70, until Gascón aggressively moved to strike settlement deals with officers.

Proposals to expedite the backlog have included a ballot initiative that would let the police chief, rather than the commission, handle discipline. Some commissioners, meanwhile, have called instead for hiring more staff; others suggested using consultants to hold hearings for individual officers. But the whole system could be fixed by simply running the commission as the bureaucratic agency it was always meant to be.

Under the city's police discipline system, civilians' accusations against officers go to an Office of Citizen Complaints. Those from the SFPD's internal affairs unit, meanwhile, are forwarded to the chief. But for cases involving allegations of serious misconduct, Gascón can only recommend disciplinary measures; the police commission has the final say. Rather than burden the seven-person panel with full hearings for each officer, each member is assigned a dozen or so cases for which he or she is supposed to serve as judge and jury, then make a recommendation to the full commission. This is where the system bogs down.

Last year [“SFPD's Shadow Disciplinary System Wastes Taxpayer Money,” Column, 6/17/09], I wrote about how delayed hearings had created a situation where officers earning annual salaries of more than $100,000 were relegated to “non–public contact positions” as they waited months or even years for their hearing dates, whiling away hours in the police file room, wasting taxpayer money, and becoming embittered, cynical employees convinced the police department's discipline system was arbitrary and unfair.

“What happens is, it becomes difficult to find the time for all the parties and all of the counsel involved,” Campos said. “It becomes more difficult, because … unless being a commissioner is a full-time job, finding time to schedule hearings is going to be difficult.”

It's not just hearings that eat up time. “There have to be pre-hearing conferences, mandatory settlement conferences to settle the cases, meeting[s] with attorneys representing the city,” Sparks said. “There are meetings with attorneys from both sides to talk about settlement options, about the possibility of a negotiated settlement, there are more meetings, and then finally there's the final hearing.”

Campos, by way of example, was assigned more than a dozen disciplinary cases during his two years on the commission, yet he never individually presided over a single hearing. At the time, he had a full-time job as general counsel to the San Francisco Unified School District, and was also an elected member of the San Francisco Democratic Party Central Committee. “The two times that hearings were scheduled to take place,” Campos said, “the cases settled beforehand.”

When I began researching the police commission's performance, I imagined I'd be able to obtain a list of case numbers that had been assigned to individual commissioners, match that against a list of resolved cases, and get a sense of which commissioners were actually performing their assigned duties. However, the commission's secretary told me there is no centralized record. And why should there be?

“You're talking about a pretty much volunteer position,” said Sparks, in reference to commissioners' $100-per-month stipend. “You don't get paid enough to pay for your parking.”

But police commission jobs weren't always considered part-time. At the start of the 20th century, commissioners earned the same $100 per month, while the chief of police earned $300 per month. Today, Gascón earns $292,000 per year; if commissioners had received similar raises, they'd be making nearly $100,000 per year, sufficient to entice candidates willing to devote workdays to the job.

But somewhere along the line, the position went from being considered a real job to a volunteer public service position.

More recently, the police commission has become politically sexy — to its further detriment.

In 2003, it was caught in the middle of a battle between the leftist majority on the Board of Supervisors and then-Mayor Willie Brown. Proposition H declared that the supervisors would now select three of the commission's seven members — and the mayor's remaining picks had to be confirmed by the board.

That achieved the desired result of making the commission more sensitive to public opinion. But the fact that its televised meetings were now more contentious and interesting meant some members became more politically prominent. Some, such as Campos, Sparks, and Marshall, had star power before they were appointed. And they have held demanding day jobs.

That's too bad. For all the talk of possible police commission reforms, nobody seems to be mentioning an obvious one: Hold commissioners to the same standards they hold officers. Pay them a decent salary, adjusted for inflation. Track their performance. If they don't complete the job they signed up for, they should be replaced by people who will.

And if those replacements happen to be retired judges or other dull San Franciscans with no potential for the political major leagues, so much the better.

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