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Lesbian longtime police commissioner DeJesus steps down

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Petra DeJesus recently stepped down from the San Francisco Police Commission. Photo: Rick Gerharter
Petra DeJesus recently stepped down from the San Francisco Police Commission. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

The only out member of the San Francisco Police Commission has stepped down as her term has ended.

Petra DeJesus, a lesbian and attorney, concluded her stint on the powerful oversight panel April 30. Speaking to the Bay Area Reporter on her penultimate day in office, DeJesus said, "I've been there a long time and my term is up."

DeJesus, who was initially appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 2005, has used her time on the commission to advocate for police reform.

"I think they are on the way," she said about how that is going, adding that in the past year Mayor London Breed's efforts to establish a street crisis response team to answer some 911 calls is a step forward.

DeJesus' day job is as an associate at the firm Kazan, McClain, Satterley and Greenwood. She has "no plans for anything next, just going to take a breather."

DeJesus said her proudest moment on the commission came in response to police officers fatally shooting Mario Woods in 2015, which led to an update of the San Francisco Police Department's use of force policies. An autopsy showed Woods had suffered 20 gunshot wounds, including six in the back.

"I think updating the use of force policy to get rid of karate chokeholds and shooting at cars, and changing the tenor of the policy to ensure the sanctity of life, was bold at the time and contentious with the unions, but it was the right move," DeJesus said.

On the other hand, DeJesus said the worst moment of her time on the commission was "when they took the vote to allow tasers."

The commission approved the use of tasers by the police department in a 4-3 vote during a November 2017 meeting. However, the Board of Supervisors has subsequently refused to provide funding for the equipment.

"There are no tasers — because there is no money to buy them," DeJesus said. "Three times we've had a vote on tasers and the first time we were successful at keeping them out of the department's hand, but just a couple of years ago, they voted tasers in. There are studies that show it is a less lethal weapon, but it is still lethal, even when used as intended. There's a lot of things wrong with them; when you have a teenager, people without real body weight, you can pierce their organs, and holding down longer than 10 seconds gives lots of electricity."

DeJesus also cited studies showing that Black Americans are more likely to die after being tased.

Several years ago, DeJesus had to fight to stay on the police commission. When her term expired in April 2017, labor leader Olga Miranda was backed by moderates such as District 11 Supervisor Ahsha Safaí to replace her, as the B.A.R. previously reported. (Three of the seven commissioners are appointed by the supervisors, and four by the mayor.)

However, Miranda withdrew her candidacy in June and DeJesus was reappointed, with support from progressive board members such as District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen. DeJesus alluded to this in her interview, but did not want to discuss it, just saying, "The last time I reapplied was more difficult. There's new blood and it's time to move over and let the young ones come through."

This year, Ronen introduced a resolution to the board declaring April 21 to be Petra DeJesus Day in the city, in honor of her Bernal Heights neighbor.

"During her tenure on the commission, Petra has been a consistently progressive driver of new policies to promote police accountability, civic engagement, constitutional policing, and individual rights," Ronen stated. "She has been the leading voice on the commission on use of force policy, prioritizing the sanctity of life and setting clear guidance on officer-involved shootings, including strict constraints on firing at moving vehicles, the carotid chokehold, and most recently — in the aftermath of the heinous murder of George Floyd — the use of knees on a person's back or body parts on a person's neck.

"She deserves to be recognized for her bravery and persistence in pushing for meaningful reform and for persisting despite attacks and intimidation," Ronen continued.

DeJesus was the last sitting member of the commission that recommended Police Chief William Scott for his position in 2016.

"I thought she was a very good commissioner," Scott told the B.A.R. "She was the last commissioner on the commission that recommended me to be the chief, so there's a special bond there, at least on my end."

Moving the needle
Scott credited DeJesus with moving the needle on police reform.

"There are so many positive changes she's been directly involved in, from major revisions in use of force that put us in the forefront to crisis intervention work that has developed in the past decade to language access: a big issue of hers," Scott said. "I could go on and on, but that's the story. These are significant accomplishments that have moved our department forward, and have put us ahead of the game. I'm going to miss her as a commissioner. I hate to see her go."

But Scott did say that he stands by his pro-taser position.

"I still believe there's a role for tasers in policing, but definitely as chief of police, I respect Petra and the Board of Supervisors' position on that," Scott said. "We're not always going to agree, but I work at the will of the people and a decision was made."

Scott said the department has "found other ways to do our work," and that the tasers are "not the issue for us to focus on."

Paul Henderson, a gay man who is the executive director of the city's Department of Police Accountability, said that he has worked with DeJesus during his various roles at the DA's office, the mayor's office and, now, overseeing DPA.

"Petra has been an institution at the police commission," Henderson stated to the B.A.R. "What stands out to me is her fierce and intentional focus on addressing disenfranchised communities and the various positions she has taken over the years to empower the LGBT community, youth, immigrants, women and people of color."

Henderson stated that DeJesus worked to reform the city's early intervention systems, which helps to address problematic behaviors before they result in police misconduct.

"One of the more important issues that Petra has championed over the recent years has been the collaborative work with the DPA on reforming the early intervention systems to develop a matrix to alert the police department about problem behaviors before a crisis," Henderson stated. "The impact of this work directly affects our own LGBT community, which is disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system.

"Petra's voice and work on behalf of others will be missed and I'm hoping she stays involved in the future with the work that has meant so much to her over the years of service that she has given to reforming policing," Henderson added.

DeJesus thanked the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club for its strong support of her over the years. In a statement, Edward Wright, the club's co-president, wrote that DeJesus is "a leader in every sense of the word."

"Petra DeJesus has spoken truth to power and been a change agent in the fight for justice. We are immensely grateful for her service to the City and County of San Francisco — a service that has brought us closer to realizing the fundamental change we need," Wright wrote. "Petra knows that progress comes from the bottom up, and her position at City Hall didn't just belong to her — it belonged to all of the us-es, the countless grassroots community members, organizers, and activists she listened and held herself accountable to. San Francisco is better because of her work on the Commission, and even as she leaves it, the work continues."

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