In a special hearing today, San Francisco lawmakers on the Rules Committee discussed the police department’s policies on the use of force. The discussion was a response to mounting pressure from the community following multiple fatal shootings by SFPD officers in recent years, including three in the Mission last year.

Since 2007, San Francisco police officers have shot 37 people, and local agencies deemed each of these shootings justifiable, said Cohen, calling these statistics “difficult to accept without questioning.”

Twice during the hearing, District 9 Supervisor David Campos pointed out Police Chief Greg Suhr’s absence from the meeting, which he called “disturbing.”

“I am very bothered by the fact that in every single case involving use of force by police, the chief has made statements that what happened in these incidents was within policy, even though those statements are made before there is a complete investigation,” he said.

“In Alex Nieto’s case, the chief went to a community meeting where he said what the police did was just fine,” Campos said, adding that this pattern was continued in the shooting of Amilcar Perez-Lopez and Mario Woods – in all three cases, the police department deemed the use of force by officers involved as justified.

Spurred in part by Mayor Ed Lee’s call for a reform of lethal force and officer training policies following the police shooting of Mario Woods on December 2, the hearing spanned some three hours.

“We are here… also to open up the conversation to a transparent discussion about cultural changes [in the police force] that need to happen across the country,” said District 10 supervisor Malia Cohen. She also called San Francisco’s general order governing the use of force, which has not been revised since 1995, “outdated.”

“These incidents have created a huge gap between what the police department sees as acceptable conduct and what the community sees as acceptable conduct,” said District 11 Supervisor John Avalos.

Current use of the force policies under which San Francisco police officers operate lack verbiage in implementing racial bias and de-escalation training, said Aaron Zissar, a trial attorney at the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.

“One of the first things I saw was that there is no discussion of crisis intervention in these current policies – putting these practices into policy,” said Zissar. He recommended that updated policies should include de-escalation training and legislate a crisis intervention team “that goes out there for prevention,” engaging in active community outreach to prevent police encounters in the first place.

This emphasis on enforcing de-escalation training policies was echoed by the committee, and London Breed, its president, called for the reconstitution of the African American Police-Community Relations Board, which operated some time ago to facilitate policy changes and improve relationships between officers and the community.

“Fixing and repairing the trust between community and police is going to require a lot of work,” said Breed. “It’s not just about changing policies but changing the (police) culture.”

This cultural change is achieved by shifting from a “warrior to guardian” mentality, said Julie Traun, Director of Court Programs at the Bar Association of San Francisco. Traun pointed to the Oakland Police Department as an example of creating a culture of “self-examination” from which San Francisco’s police force could learn.  

“You have to partner with professionals,” said Traun, referring to Oakland’s successful implementation of body cameras and technology that facilitates the department’s data collection process in an effort to address biased policing policies.

Joyce Hicks, executive director of the Office of Citizen Complaints, recommended requiring a sergeant or officer of higher rank to respond to incidents involving an armed suspect.

“The shootings are reduced by 80 percent when a supervisor is there during a critical incident,” said Hicks.

In Suhr’s absence, Police Captain Gregory Yee said that officers will be trained to initiate a confrontation with an armed suspect with questions rather than commands, and to intervene in high stress situations involving other officers.

“That is a change in culture, to have an officer tap another on the shoulder and say ‘step back,’” said Yee, adding that officers will be held accountable for not intervening in situation that require de-escalation.

“There needs to be a conversation about what an officer’s role is … and who is holding them accountable,” said Eticia Brown, and organizer for the Justice for Mario Woods coalition, during public comment. “They are there to protect and serve the community. They are not the jury, they are not the judge.”