Sunday, August 07, 2016

For the record: the SFPD has evaded community control

The Movement for Black Lives has issued a detailed policy platform to "end the war on Black people." Issues related to police and policing are elaborated under the heading Community Control as outlined above.

As it happens, last month a "Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement" issued a 270-some page report on bias in the San Francisco Police Department. After racist, sexist and homophobic text messages among officers were revealed in the course of prosecutions, District Attorney George Gascón assembled a high-powered volunteer investigative group. (The text messages are in the report if you want to make yourself sick.) He persuaded retired Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell, along with retired U.S. District Judge Dickran Tevrizian and retired California Supreme Court Judge Cruz Reynoso to lead dozens of volunteer attorneys in looking at the SFPD. The panel had no subpoena power, but despite stonewalling from the police union (POA), it documented a range of unprofessional and biased practices, most all of which persist because of the absence of effective community control.

The Blue Ribbon Panel laid out a concise description of the ostensible governing structure of city law enforcement. Many of us who have worked to prevent further police killings of unarmed civilians have found all this quite opaque, so I'll quote some of it here.

San Francisco has a structure for external oversight of the SFPD that is, in many ways, unique. There are two entities outside of the SFPD that play important roles in overseeing the department: the Police Commission and the [Office of Citizen Complaints] OCC. In addition, a third entity external to the SFPD—the Controller’s Office—has authority to audit the SFPD, although it rarely does so.

The Police Commission is the body that has ultimate authority over the SFPD in all areas, including oversight, policymaking, and officer discipline. The Chief of Police reports to the Police Commission, which has the power to fire the Chief. There are seven commissioners, four of whom are appointed by the Mayor and three of whom are appointed by the Board of Supervisors. The commissioners are all civilians and serve four-year terms of service.

No entity regularly audits SFPD operational effectiveness, high-risk activities, or compliance with policies.

None of San Francisco’s police oversight bodies routinely audits the SFPD’s operations for efficacy or compliance. ... Significantly, the Police Commission does not perform any systematic investigations or audits to measure the SFPD’s operational effectiveness, review its high-risk activities, or assess the department’s compliance with policies issued by the Commission. This is not due to a lack of authority; the City Charter broadly authorizes the Commission to “prescribe and enforce any reasonable rules and regulations that it deems necessary to provide for the efficiency of the Department.”

... The OCC sustains a small percentage—well under 10 percent—of complaints. ...It also bears special emphasis that neither the Chief nor the Director of the OCC has sent a discipline case that originated from a citizen’s complaint to the Police Commission since 2012. All of the disciplinary cases that have been sent to the Police Commission from 2013 through 2015 originated in [Internal Affairs Division of the department]. During this same period, only nine OCC complaints have resulted in a suspension by the Chief, and all such suspensions were for 10 days or fewer. ...

Looks like lots of bureaucracy, but darn little effective control.

And it gets worse:

The voluntary nature of the Police Commissioner role and a lack of Commission staff constrain commissioners’ abilities to fulfill their duties. Police Commissioners are volunteers who each maintain full-time jobs in addition to their Commission duties. They receive only a small stipend of $100 per month for their Commission work. Many current and former commissioners reported that serving on the Police Commission could be a full-time job.

Even if the Commissioners wanted to bring the cops under control -- and some perhaps do -- the full time leadership of the SFPD can easily run bureaucratic circles around these well meaning part-timers.

And that conclusion is reinforced by the panel's observation on the conduct of the Police Officers Association (POA). The union not only does the job of a labor organization, ensuring its members receive good pay and benefits and fair treatment. According to the Blue Ribbon Panel, the POA also aims to run the entire institution in parallel to the ostensible, but ineffectual, administrative structure, to effectively set policies, to evade any community oversight, and maintain a sexually and racially exclusive old boys' club. More from the panel:

The SFPD is a government agency and the POA is a labor union; each has a role to play with regard to officers and the larger community. But while each claims to be independent of the other, the distinction is often blurred. The way the POA inserted itself between the Panel and the SFPD in this investigation is a prime example of this blurred line.

... A high-level confidential witness characterized the POA as a “bullying organization” and “frat house” and past heads of the POA as “bullies.” The witness also stated that the POA “doesn’t reflect the diversity of the department.” Instead, according to the witness, the POA worked to advance the needs of a vocal group of insiders.

The POA seemingly disregards community opinion that is not unfailingly pro-police; it describes community members who object to certain police conduct as misinformed, “professional protestors,” race-baiters, or “a small percentage of people who yell the loudest.” The POA consistently rebuts any criticism—real or perceived—by promoting the diversity of the SFPD and its prowess in outreach. It will be difficult to rebuilt trust with critics of the SFPD if this pronounced gap in understanding remains unaddressed.

Witnesses inside and outside the SFPD, including one very high-level confidential witness, stated that although the department was diverse in some ways, the culture was dominated by an insular “good old boys’ club” that originated in certain high schools in the city, in particular St. Ignatius, Sacred Heart,and Riordan. In some cases the network reached further back to elementary school and youth sports leagues. Some witnesses stated that officers who did not attend St. Ignatius high school could not reach the inner circles of power in the department.

.. .Witnesses also stated that the “club” had consequences for officer discipline. Officers tipped fellow officers off to any threat of disciplinary investigations due to interpersonal relationships. A witness stated that some officers currently felt comfortable with cover-ups because they knew that their friends—whom they grew up with—would be loyal to them. ... A current officer had repeatedly seen senior officers retire, only to be replaced by “their next generation”—their children, nieces, etc. whose conduct got “carte blanche because of the relationships their fathers had.”

... A city official summarized the situation as follows: "The SFPD protects its own, and that’s part of the problem with the culture. When you’re a good police officer and you see another police officer do bad things [but don’t report it], you’re just as guilty. The culture of not saying anything still exists; you could be ostracized by other members of the department. Why do you expect people in the community to snitch on others—point the finger—when you won’t do it within the department?"

No wonder lots of San Franciscans look at the SFPD and see just another bullying gang, this one with legal authority to shoot.

San Franciscans are struggling to rein in a police department which has killed five civilians in the last two years in circumstances in which officers' justifications for their use of force strain credulity. Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods, Luis Gongora Pat, and Jessica Williams are dead. No officer has been charged or (as far as we know) disciplined. In fact, since 2000, the SFPD has killed 40 civilians; no officers have been charged. A culture of impunity in the SFPD is not new; in the over 40 years I've lived in this city, new cases involving officers mistreating residents have recurred over and over. Calls for reform seem to achieve little. I plan to write an occasional post "for the record" recalling some of these incidents and the community struggles for more justice.

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