A Department of Justice panel holding forums throughout the city to gauge citizens’ opinions of local police practices didn’t get far on Tuesday night before loud and angry feedback cut in. Activists said the panel has no capacity to enact change and amounts only to window-dressing.
Addressing a crowd of about 100 people gathered in Mission High School’s auditorium, Department of Justice consultant Kenneth Bouche asked what issue with the city’s police force had brought them to the public hearing.
Bouche hardly finished his sentence before protestors and community members holding up “Justice for Mario Woods” posters erupted into shouts of “Murder!”
Wednesday’s meeting at the school at 3750 18th St. was the second of three “listening sessions” held by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, a division of the Justice Department.
Following a series of officer-involved shootings of Latino and Black men in San Francisco, public outrage cumulated in protest after 26-year-old Mario Woods was shot by police more than 20 times in the Bayview last December. The incident was caught on video and earlier this year prompted Mayor Ed Lee to call for a formal review of the police department’s training and practices by the Justice Department.
The two lines of commenters waiting to speak spanned the aisles of the auditorium. Those who had come to express their concerns with current police practices criticized the federal review, which they said lacks urgency and is ultimately powerless in making changes. They demanded that the Justice Department send its Civil Rights Commission instead to effectively address what they called a corrupt system.
“Who called you to our city?” asked Daniel Landry, who represents the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition. “This city is on the verge of explosion. We want [Attorney General] Loretta Lynch to answer to us why this city isn’t being investigated by civil rights division.”
“This whole thing smells like hell,” said coalition member David Carlos Salaverry, addressing the COPS panel. “You guys are being played by being sent out in front of angry crowds and trying to do the what is appropriate for a little suburb, but not for a city with a history of corruption such as San Francisco.”
Salaverry echoed Landry’s request for an investigation by the federal Civil Rights Commission instead. “Send us the Civil Rights Commission — make that message go up the food chain.”
As speakers switched off, members of the coalition intermittently chanted “Justice for Mario Woods.” Many accused the police department of racism and alleged cronyism within San Francisco’s justice system.
“You need to aim higher. The rank and file officers are the least of the problem,” said Tom Selhorst, referring to the San Francisco District Attorney’s past decisions not to press charges against officers involved in police shootings and policies that have protected officers from criminal undergoing investigations. “The [police chief] himself has a history of breaking the law, and when you break the law you get promoted in this town.”
Speakers representing the coalition were consistent in their demands for firing Police Chief Greg Suhr, and called for reform of the police department as well as an independent investigation into Mario Woods’ death.
“What we want is accountability,” said Michael White, a member of the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition. “Every time there is a murder by the cops, the first report we get is that the person who died lunged at the police, until in later reports it turns out that they did not. This happens every time someone is murdered by SFPD.”
Many speakers also referenced the ongoing civil trial of Alex Nieto, who was shot by four police officers in 2014.
“Yesterday we had the city attorney badgering the mother of Alex Nieto, showing no compassion,” said speaker Francisco Da Costa, pointing to a “rogue mentality of those who have been conditioned” within the justice system.
Throughout the three-hour meeting, the panel of experts patiently faced each speaker, but remained largely silent. In an effort to show that public input was valued, the speaking time had been extended from two minutes to five minutes at the beginning of the session, causing the hearing to stretch well beyond the allotted time.
Mission High School students were also present at the hearing, and some took to the microphone to share their fears stemming from police interactions.
“As a black man in America I’m terrified of the police … I should not feel this way,” said Hatim Mansori, a Mission High School senior. “I’ve been stopped in the streets and they told me to respect the officers, but that’s a threat in a way. A lot of us youths don’t know our rights and so they are exploiting that.”
Mission High School counselor Taffany Jones-Davis spoke to a culture of fear and mistrust among minority youth towards the police that is reinforced by the way officers view and treat them.
“Last week, officers came into Mission High after an incident and began to accost students who fit the profile, without checking in with the office. [The students] should feel safe at school,” said Jones-Davis. “These are psychological scars that need more than a bandaid, and that’s all these meetings are.”
Jennifer Friedenbach, director of the Coalition on Homelessness, told the panel that she had long worked to address police brutality, offering solutions such as Crisis Intervention Training for officers, but that policies currently in place have prevented the full implementation of training alternatives.
“We pushed for CIT but it hasn’t come in place. The general orders haven’t changed, so police are still given orders to use force rather than verbal de-escalation,” said Friedenbach. “There’s a huge opportunity for change at this moment we have to change the use of force guidelines.”
District 9 Supervisorial candidate Edwin Lindo was one of the last speakers, but delivered a perspective that resonated with many in the auditorium.
“Forty-four percent of people arrested are Black … less than 80 African American high school students are graduating this year. That’s the direct pipeline to prison,” he said. “If those numbers don’t scream out at you perhaps our entire system is morally corrupt.”
“I hope you’re here to find the facts to send back to D.C. — that we are bankrupt in justice,” said Lindo.
A third and final community meeting will be held at 6 p.m. on March 10 at Golden Gate High School, located at 1430 Scott St.