SF supervisors committee rejects Debra Walker nomination for police panel

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Monday June 3, 2024
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Debra Walker faced heated questioning from the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, which rejected her reappointment on a 2-0 vote. Photo: Screengrab from SFGovTV
Debra Walker faced heated questioning from the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, which rejected her reappointment on a 2-0 vote. Photo: Screengrab from SFGovTV

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on Monday rejected Mayor London Breed's reappointment of a lesbian to the high-profile police commission. The decision came amid allegations that the panel is polarized and one supervisor remained fixated on a comment from the nominee, Debra Walker.

The rules committee did vote 2-0 to forward the nomination of another Breed pick to the police commission, retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge C. Don Clay, to the full board with a positive recommendation.

But Walker's nomination was rejected 2-0 by acting committee Chair Supervisor Shamann Walton (District 10) and Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who represents District 11 and is running for mayor against Breed. Rules committee Chair Supervisor Hillary Ronen (D9) was excused. District 1 Supervisor Connie Chan had sat in on the committee meeting for an earlier item but then left, leaving Walton and Safaí.

Walker's fate is now up to the Board of Supervisors, which is expected to vote June 11. If approved, Walker's new term would end April 30, 2028.

Walker had been serving as a police commissioner for the past year and a half until her term ended April 30. Breed had nominated her in 2022 to replace former supervisor and later police commissioner Malia Cohen, now serving as California's elected state controller. Back then, Walker was approved by the Board of Supervisors on a divided 8-3 vote, as the Bay Area Reporter previously reported. Until her term ended, Walker was the only LGBTQ representative on the police oversight panel.

During the June 3 rules committee meeting, Walker at one point said, "there is way too much input from people who aren't cops." That comment stuck with Safaí, who repeatedly mentioned it. He was also critical of Walker's support for Proposition E that voters passed on the March ballot. The measure gives up some of the police commission's powers.

"Should we have a police commission?" Safaí asked Walker at one point.

"Yes," Walker responded.

Walker said that she supports all of the reforms the San Francisco Police Department is undertaking, including meeting many of the 272 recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Justice after the SFPD asked it to review the department following a series of officer-involved shootings and high-profile misconduct cases in 2016, according to the department's website.

Walker also said that she supports the technology reforms that were part of Prop E, which was championed by Breed and Safer San Francisco.

"It makes it easier for officers to follow the rules and I think we're going to be more effective," she said.

But Safaí noted that Prop E "did a number of things that take things out of the police commission's hands," including SFPD's pursuit policy. He said that prior to Prop E's passage, San Francisco had one of the most reputable pursuit policies. He said that it was his understanding under that policy, officers would need to call in and get a "green light" from a captain in order to engage in a pursuit.

"Prop E removes that," he said.

Safaí asked Walker is the police commission is involved in setting policy.

"That our policy is consistent with city law, yes," she answered.

Walker also devoted some time to the issue of pretext stops, when an officer pulls someone over for things like minor traffic violations. Research has shown those types of traffic stops have a disproportionate impact on minorities. The San Francisco Police Commission voted earlier this year to end pretext stops. Walker voted against the measure, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

At the committee meeting, Walker said that pretext stops are a tool that officers use, and said she agrees with ending racially biased pretext stops.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Walker said it was ironic that her hearing came at the same time that Breed was raising the Pride flag at City Hall.

"As the flag was being raised, I was being attacked," she said.

She also took issue with Safaí asking if she was sure she had the time to commit to the commission.

"I have the time," she said at the meeting.

Mission Local recently reported that the police commission has canceled several meetings this spring. Breed controls the commission as she has four out the seven appointments (the supervisors have the other three). But Breed had a falling out with her own appointee, Max Carter-Oberstone, in 2022, when he voted for Board of Supervisors appointee Cindy Elias for police commission president instead of Larry Yee, whom the mayor wanted to lead the body, as the San Francisco Standard reported.

In September 2022, the San Francisco Standard reported that Breed had asked Carter-Oberstone, and dozens of other city commissioners, to preemptively sign undated letters of resignation.

The Board of Supervisors later officially prohibited Breed from such letters, though she had already abandoned that after City Attorney David Chiu's office said the practice, while not explicitly barred under the City Charter, was "inconsistent" with it and should not be required going forward, as the Chronicle reported.

During his comments before the vote, Safaí noted that Breed has lost control of the police commission. Was Walker "asked to sign a resignation letter?" he asked. "I didn't even ask today. That's what started this downhill."

Walton said that while he has respected Walker for many years — she has previously served on the arts and building inspections commissions — he could not support forwarding her name to the Board of Supervisors because he thinks Walker does not believe the police commission should be setting policy for SFPD.

During public comment, several people spoke in support of Walker and one person spoke against. None stated their names.

Walker did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Retired judge approved

The hearing for Clay, a former presiding judge of the Alameda County bench, went much smoother. Though he said he has not studied the hundreds of reform recommendations and progress SFPD has made, he told the supervisors that it's important the reforms are there.

Clay, who lives in San Francisco, previously served on the fire commission and the juvenile probation commission. If approved by the Board of Supervisors, Clay's term would end April 30, 2028.

During public comment, Dennis Herrera, the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the former city attorney, spoke in support of Clay's nomination.

"He's just the sort of person you'd want on the police commission," Herrera said.

Longtime criminal defense attorney Stuart Hanlon said he's known Clay for years and while they don't necessarily agree politically — Hanlon described himself as a progressive — "Clay is fair, honest, nonbiased, and direct."

Updated, 6/4/24: This article has been updated with comments from Debra Walker.

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