Editorial: SF supervisors should confirm Debra Walker to police panel

  • by BAR Editorial Board
  • Wednesday June 5, 2024
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Debra Walker is seeking reappointment to the police commission. Photo: From Facebook
Debra Walker is seeking reappointment to the police commission. Photo: From Facebook

The irony was not lost on us — as Mayor London Breed was celebrating the LGBTQ community and raising the Pride flag at City Hall June 3, across the hall in the Board of Supervisors chambers the mayor's lesbian appointee to the police commission was undergoing a grueling hearing for her nomination to a second term. In the end, the board's rules committee, consisting that day of Supervisors Shamann Walton and Ahsha Safaí, voted to move Walker's name on to the full board with a negative recommendation. The board is expected to vote on Walker's reappointment at its June 11 meeting. We strongly urge the supervisors to do so, though it's expected to be close.

When Walker was appointed nearly two years ago, it was on a divided 8-3 vote, with Supervisors Hillary Ronen, Dean Preston, and Connie Chan voting against her. Add to that the likely no votes from Walton and Safaí, and Walker will need every one of the remaining supervisors — Catherine Stefani, Aaron Peskin, Myrna Melgar, and the three gay members, Rafael Mandelman, Matt Dorsey, and Joel Engardio — to be confirmed. Peskin, like Safaí, is running against Breed for mayor this November.

Police commission appointments are inherently political. The mayor controls the seven-member body with four appointments, while the supervisors have the remaining three. But at the moment, the power balance has shifted because Breed had a falling out with her own pick, 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. Add to that the revelation that Breed had asked Carter-Oberstone and dozens of other commissioners to sign secret, undated resignation letters (Breed later ended that practice after the city attorney's office weighed in and the supervisors passed legislation prohibiting it), and it's no surprise that things over at the police commission are, to put it mildly, a mess. There's also the issue of the oversight panel canceling several meetings this spring due to the lack of a quorum, as Mission Local reported.

Nonetheless, given all the turmoil, Walker does want to be reappointed, and she should be. In a phone interview the day after the hearing, Walker said that there was a condescending tone in the room. "I have to say, as the flag was being raised, I felt I was being attacked," she said. "I felt it before in my life, that I'm in over my head or go back to the arts. It's time to stop that kind of crap" regarding lesbians and women in general, she added.

Walker is a longtime artist and served on the arts and building inspection commissions before being named to the police panel. During the hearing, Safaí asked Walker if she had "time in your schedule" to serve on the commission. "I have the time," Walker responded. "I made a commitment." The question seemed over the top.

Walker told us that her term ended in April — the mayor announced Walker's reappointment that month, but the hearing wasn't scheduled until this week — and that the issue of canceled commission meetings in March before her time ended did not involve her. "I was available," she said.

The police commission is dealing with the ramifications of voters' passage of Proposition E, which the mayor supported. Walker said she did too, even as it removes some power from the commission, including implementing policies around police pursuits. She was asked about that at the rules committee meeting and said that Prop E also allows new technology to be used, something she supports. She told us that Department General Orders around pursuits led to some confusion among officers. "I want to reform policy so it's effective and transparent," she said. "When and what technology can be used and do pilot programs." For example, there's technology whereby police "can shoot a little GPS thing and it sticks on the car," she said, adding that officers can follow the vehicle and then pull it over when it's safer instead of instituting a high-speed chase.

Walker said that she believes everyone serving on the police commission supports reform, but that interpersonal disagreements have gotten in the way, including commissioners not respecting each other or San Francisco Police Department staff that report to them, including Chief William Scott.

"There's a lot we still need to do," she said.

Speaking of interpersonal dynamics, Walker should have been treated better at the committee hearing. "I feel the attack wasn't at me as much as at the mayor," she said. That may be true, especially with Safaí down in the polls.

Walker's reappointment would be good for lesbians, and the LGBTQ community as a whole. "I want to lift up lesbians," Walker said, adding that what she experienced at the supervisors' committee "doesn't help."

Until Walker's term expired she was the only LGBTQ person on the commission. Should she be reappointed, that would remain the case. It's vital for the community to have an out member on this important oversight panel. There hasn't been a lesbian on the Board of Supervisors since Leslie Katz served in the late 1990s. There are lesbian department heads in the city — Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson and Port Executive Director Elaine Forbes to name two — and there also needs to be lesbians on high-profile city commissions.

Walker has done the work and learned a great deal about policing and she wants to continue serving. She wants to eliminate racial bias and supports the new state law that requires officers to tell a driver why they've been pulled over. She disagreed with the police commission's vote earlier this year to end pretext stops, saying that, "you don't get rid of racial bias by not enforcing the law. We're better than that."

Walker noted at the committee meeting that she's been appointed to previous commissions by four supervisors — Tom Ammiano, a gay man; Peskin, Matt Gonzalez, and Breed before she served as mayor.

The supervisors should reappoint Walker to the police commission.

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