Breed names lesbian artist Walker to SF police commission

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday June 1, 2022
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Debra Walker has been nominated by Mayor London Breed to the San Francisco Police Commission. Photo: Courtesy Facebook
Debra Walker has been nominated by Mayor London Breed to the San Francisco Police Commission. Photo: Courtesy Facebook

Looking to return LGBTQ representation to the oversight body for the San Francisco Police Department, Mayor London Breed has nominated Debra Walker, a lesbian and artist, to a vacancy on the police commission. It will now be up to the Board of Supervisors to confirm Walker to the seat.

At the start of Pride Month Wednesday, June 1, Breed announced Walker as her nominee to succeed state Board of Equalization member Malia Cohen, who stepped down March 3 from the police commission in order to run for state controller on the June 7 primary ballot. Cohen had been a city supervisor and former board president.

"It brings me great joy to nominate longtime community leader Debra Walker to the police commission. I am confident that her commitment to the people of San Francisco and deep understanding of the city's complexities will serve this commission well," stated Breed. "As we continue to make progress on police reform, we need leaders from diverse backgrounds who know how to bring people together to find solutions. Debra will ensure that every community has a voice at the table while this commission seeks to be a national leader on advancing criminal justice policy."

Breed had previously appointed Walker, 69, to the city's arts commission in 2020 right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Walker and her fellow arts commissioners have worked over the last two years to help local artists and arts groups survive the health crisis.

She was a vocal supporter of Breed's 2018 mayoral campaign and co-chaired the arts and tourism committee that advised her on policy matters during her transition that summer.

"I am really, really very honored and humbled to be asked," Walker said of the mayor nominating her to the police commission. "I realize how important this is not just to the mayor but everyone who lives here. I take this very seriously. I hope I can be of assistance and help."

Speaking to the Bay Area Reporter Tuesday, May 31, in her first interview about her appointment, Walker said she had yet to speak with any of the 11 supervisors about it but planned to do so in the coming days.

"I have big shoes to fill, big high heels to fill," said Walker. "If I am seated, I am really proud to represent our community."

The supervisors eschewed holding a hearing on Walker's arts commission appointment two years ago. It remains to be seen if a majority of the board will vote to approve her serving as a police commissioner.

"I don't anticipate not being supported, but the politics being what they are, I am sure people will have questions for me," Walker told the B.A.R. "I am happy to show up, talk to them, and answer questions."

It has been more than a year since Petra DeJesus, a lesbian and attorney, resigned from the closely scrutinized police commission on April 30, 2021. Last December, the supervisors rejected two transgender applicants who had sought to succeed DeJesus and instead seated Jesus Gabriel Yanez, a program director with Instituto Familiar de la Raza.

One of the police commission's tasks is to conduct disciplinary hearings on charges of police misconduct. Walker said she would thoroughly review each case brought before the seven-member body and be as transparent with the public as she could be. She would strive to do the same whenever there is a police officer-involved shooting.

"If I am seated and approved by the board, I will be making sure we get all the information and the public knows what happens," she said. "It is upsetting whenever there is a shooting of any kind."

She said video from the latest incident, where four police offices opened fired and killed two men they came upon, with one holding a knife and threatening to kill the other man, was "disturbing" and merited further review of the department's policies.

"I mean excess force is an issue we have to deal with," said Walker.

As for the controversy surrounding the city's Pride committee banning first responders from marching in the parade while wearing their uniforms, which led Breed to pull out from marching herself in solidarity, Walker told the B.A.R. she doesn't support the policy and believes police officers and others should be allowed to wear whatever they want. She noted that when she first moved to the city four decades ago she was friends with some of the first out lesbians and gay men who entered the police department.

"I saw first hand the struggle they went through in the ranks to be accepted," recalled Walker. "I also saw the amazing officers who stood up with us as our allies, all marching together over the years in the parade."

While she understands people have issues with policing and want to see reforms enacted, which Walker noted she supports and hopes to help push forward those conversations as a police commissioner, she doesn't support banning anyone from the parade. She told the B.A.R. she is hopeful some compromise can be reached.

"I personally came to San Francisco because I felt safe to be here, to be me, to be all I am. I feel banning anyone is the wrong move," said Walker. "I am hopeful the conversations can keep going and we can find a solution that works. For me, I think it is horrific to ban anyone from walking with us, either one of us or an ally."

Longtime SF resident

Originally from Nebraska, Walker moved to California in the early 1970s to attend college in Riverside. She worked for the Los Angeles Times as an assistant art director for several years and first moved to San Francisco in 1981.

She lives in one of the city's oldest artist cooperatives. She is a past president of both the Harvey Milk LGBTQ Democratic Club and the San Francisco Arts Democratic Club.

Between 1999 and 2019 Walker served as a tenant representative on the city's Building Inspections Commission and was appointed by successive board presidents, beginning with gay former supervisor Tom Ammiano. For the past several years she served as an ombudsman for tenants in buildings owned by Veritas who were facing eviction or trying to address other issues with the investment company.

"My work within that contract really was with residents, tenants to make sure they weren't evicted," she said.

Walker lost her bid for the District 6 supervisor seat in 2010. Now residing within the newly drawn District 9, where Supervisor Hillary Ronen will be termed out in 2024, Walker said she is not interested in seeking the seat.

"No, no, no," Walker said when asked about possibly seeing her run again for supervisor.

Leaving the arts commission wasn't an easy decision, said Walker, but she couldn't say no when the mayor asked her to serve on the police commission.

"I am going to really miss the arts commission. I had to think about it as art is my soul," she said. "I care a lot about the arts. The mayor said she of course would continue to want my input on everything to do with the arts."

The supervisors have 60 days to either confirm or reject Walker's appointment to the police commission once it is officially transmitted to the clerk of the board.

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