The San Francisco Chronicle is doing a huge service to the people of the city with its current series, "Use of Force," documenting and describing the pattern of brutal behavior by a some of officers of the San Francisco Police Department.
The Chron has done what the city government ought to have done a long time ago: using public records, they have complied a data base of use of force reports, citizen complaints against police, and settlements payments by the city to injured citizens. The picture isn't pretty:
While San Jose reveals only a few incidents, the SFPD keeps and promotes officers who use force improperly. There can be no other conclusion.
Nothing in "Use of Force" is much of a surprise to residents of the poorer, blacker and browner neighborhoods of the city or to political activists. A few memorable incidents in a long catalogue of SFPD misconduct include
- the 1989 Castro Street Sweep in which 200 San Francisco police officers swept through the Castro and broke up a peaceful march by gay and lesbian activists protesting the federal government's neglect of people with AIDS;...only one police officer was disciplined, but the city paid out $250,000 to settle lawsuits brought by victims.
- the police beating of United Farm Workers Vice President Dolores Huerta that ruptured her spleen;
- the fatal shooting of 17 year old Sheila Detoy by cops who were trying to arrest a drug dealer. Community activists spent years trying to get the shooter disciplined, while the city paid out a wrongful death settlement of $505,000 to her family.
1) Put in place a system of reporting that forces the SFPD to acknowledge that a few cops cause most of the complaints.
2) Fix or fire those officers, pronto. Simply doing those two things would be incredibly cost effective -- whatever a new computer reporting system and the training to use it would cost, it has to be less than the city pays in settlements to police misconduct victims.
So why won't the obvious get done? Here's where things get rough.
3) The police brass is riddled with officers who are willing to look the other way when cops use excessive force. It may have seemed a little over the top a few years ago when D.A. Terrance Hallinan indicted the whole command structure of the department over the chief's son beating up a bartender. Hallinan didn't have the evidence to make the charges stick. Nonetheless, the clubby chain of command where bad apples rise in rank makes reform nearly impossible.
4) Unhappily, the Police Officers Association (POA) is part of the problem. The current head of the union, Gary Delagnes, wracked up over 100 complaints of misconduct himself before rising to his current job.
5) And this points to the final, possibly fatal, obstacle to police reform: the city's political ruling class apparently doesn't mind seeing the SFPD out of control in its treatment of brown, black and uppity citizens. And so successive mayors have appointed chiefs acceptable to the existing command and the union. Willie Brown changed the race of the police brass, but did nothing to rock the boat. Gavin Newsom appointed a Chinese American woman chief, but so far has not used his clout to stop misconduct. It remains to be seen whether he'll act after this Chronicle series, since the POA has long been a political supporter.
On the front page of today's Chron, next to the "Use of Force" story, a headline reads "Push to open up mayor's races in S.F." In recent years, deluges of corporate and developer money of dubious legality have flooded San Francisco mayoral contests. The current mayor spent $5.7 million to win the office against a more progressive opponent who spent less than a million and still got 47 percent of the vote. The two previous mayoral elections were dominated by Willie Brown's ability to leverage vast funds to bury progressive challengers.
Gavin Newsom is probably guaranteed another term (he is popular) but the public financing plan now before the city council might change the electoral terrain after he leaves office. A more equitably financed electoral system might enable a future mayor to confront the culture of police brutality that has long festered in corners of the SFPD. Without political change, the SFPD will continue to get away with periodically beating people up and the city will go on paying settlements.