SFPD reform long overdue

  • Wednesday July 13, 2016
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SFPD reform long overdue

This week a blue-panel tasked with reviewing transparency, accountability, and fairness in law enforcement issued a blistering critique of the San Francisco Police Department. The 72 findings and 81 recommendations reveal an institution in crisis and confirm what many people in the city already know: SFPD is mired in outdated technology, old-school law enforcement practices like stop-and-frisk, and has no meaningful community policing in areas where the majority of residents are from minority communities. The panel " made up of retired Judges Cruz Reynoso, who served on the state Supreme Court; Dickran Tevrizian, who served on the federal bench; and LaDoris Cordell, a lesbian who served on the Santa Clara County bench and is the former independent police auditor for the city of San Jose " also found that the department too often yields power to the police union, which has historically resisted reform. Most recently that coziness could be seen in the monthslong effort to approve a body camera policy for officers on duty.

Of concern to the LGBT community, the panel found that transgender victims of domestic violence " often low-income trans women " experienced ridicule from the police and routine misgendering.

So, while the police department has stated policies prohibiting bias that are in line with best practices, the reality on the street is that these procedures are not uniformly followed, particularly if the person arrested is black, brown, or LGBT. For example, the department has failed to report accurately the number of Hispanic arrestees to the California Department of Justice. Arrest data reported in the SFPD's own "Racial Profiling Assessment" includes five racial categories, but the arrest data it reports to the state DOJ includes only three racial categories: black, white, and other. "Although there is a separate category for 'Hispanic' in the [state's criminal justice statistics center] arrest data, the SFPD reported only one arrest of a Hispanic person for the period 2005-2014. Instead, it appears that the SFPD classifies Hispanic arrestees as 'White,'" the report states. The panel recommended correcting this problem.

The panel recommended that SFPD issue a department bulletin addressing searches of transgender individuals: "The SFPD should partner with community-based organizations and coalitions focused on transgender people to issue a department bulletin addressing the procedure officers should follow if they need to conduct a search of a transgender individual. This issue is not addressed in [Department Bulletin] 13-258 regarding police interactions with transgender individuals, which only provides that officers are prohibited from searching any person 'if the sole purpose of the search would be to determine a detainee's or arrestee's gender.' SFPD should revise DB 13-258 to establish a written procedure for searching transgender individuals."

The department needs to improve training for police personnel on implicit bias. The report recommended that such training be included in academy classes for new cadets and ongoing for officers. More importantly, the training should focus on real-world scenarios and include use-of-force situations. The panel also recommended that community members be invited to participate in and observe the training and noted that experts have said such collaborative efforts produce good results. Community members get an opportunity to experience what police officers encounter on the job, and the officers can better connect with the people they serve, the report stated.

Perhaps the most critical findings concern SFPD's use-of-force policies, which the panel said are contrary to best practices, "outdated," and "confusing." The report recommended that the department eliminate its "escalating scale" of permissible use-of-force policy and instead include a focus on "de-escalation." This is training that police departments around the country must consider, given the recent fatal shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota. The Castile case in particular is shocking and repulsive because he was complying with the officer's orders, yet was still fatally shot with his girlfriend and her young daughter in the car.

In San Francisco, like other jurisdictions, the police union is all-powerful. And predictably, Police Officers Association President Martin Halloran was not happy with the blue ribbon panel's report, accusing District Attorney George Gascon, who commissioned it, of "lighting a match" on the tinderbox that confirms for police their belief that they are being scapegoated. We don't think that's the case. One can support the majority of hard-working, brave officers yet still believe it's unjustified when someone who hasn't done anything " or hasn't committed a major crime " is the victim of an officer-involved shooting. San Francisco had six fatal officer-involved shootings in 2015 and three in the past six months.

Mayor Ed Lee, the Board of Supervisors, and the SFPD must begin instituting the recommendations made by the blue ribbon panel. The mayor can start by searching for a permanent police chief from outside of the department. It's clear from this report that SFPD needs an outside leader to institute the necessary reforms. Police reform is possible, as exemplified by Dallas Police Chief David Brown, who earned plaudits in recent days as media reports pointed out that the department experienced a major decrease in citizen complaints and instituted effective community policing techniques since he took the helm in 2010.

America is reeling from gun violence. The answer isn't to arm everyone, as Donald Trump likes to say. Rather, the solution is for law enforcement to use less lethal force, and to work within their communities to foster better relationships. Nobody wins when a major U.S. city has to bury five cops. And nobody wins when communities have to bury their own because police lack policies and training to de-escalate, disarm, and apprehend.