San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi called for a state investigation into police practices during an April 13, 2016 press conference at City Hall. Photo by Laura Waxmann

Following a letter to California Attorney General Kamala Harris last week, Public Defender Jeff Adachi vowed to continue demanding a state investigation into the practices of the San Francisco Police Department, which he said are plagued by racial bias, use-of-force violations and a lack of transparency.

“People are dying on our streets, so how many more have to be killed before we are going to get an agency with the power to reform?” asked Adachi at a press conference held in the wake of last week’s fatal police shooting of Luis Gongora, a Mission District homeless man. “We have policies on the table — what we need is someone to step up and enforce them.”

Adachi was joined on the steps of City Hall by several city supervisors, District Attorney George Gascon, and leaders of various activist groups challenging police practices during an April 13 press conference addressing a string of shootings at the hands of the police department over the past two years.

With the power to institute an investigation of any law enforcement agency in the state that has violated the civil rights of a citizen, Adachi said that involvement by the attorney general was crucial.

“We are putting all this time and hope into these efforts that are going to result in nothing. That’s why we are making it clear today that we want the attorney general to take a stand,” he said.

But shortly after the conference, Harris issued a statement in which in she said that she would continue to monitor the ongoing review by the Community Oriented Policing Services — a component of the Department of Justice — and only step in if “investigators face resistance and the implementation of reforms falls short.”

The press conference took place just an hour before a town hall meeting was held by the Police Department to discuss officers’ involvement in Gongora’s death.

As protesters held up placards with images of a set of hands painted red, Phelicia Jones — an organizer with the labor union SEIU 1021 and the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition — announced into a microphone, “San Francisco, you have blood on your hands.”

Amid protesters’ calls for the resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr, the city leaders promised unity and action in enacting policies that will result in substantial changes. All of Wednesday’s speakers called for an independent civil rights investigation and a reform to police use-of-force policies.  

“The shooting has led all our public officials joining the reform movement. Everyone is a reformer,” said Allen Schlosser, senior counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, addressing a crowd of about 60 people. “But it is impossible to put in effect the changes we want unless an outside agency comes in.”

Schlosser called the ongoing  review of police department practices by the Department of Justice “completely inadequate.” Echoing Adachi’s demands for involvement by the attorney general, Schlosser accused the police department of “distorting evidence,” adding that an “enforcement mechanism” is needed to address a lack of transparency within the department.

“We can’t have a collaboration with people who aren’t willing to be open and honest,” he said. “The civil rights division has the power and experience to change this department.”

Yesterday, Supervisor Malia Cohen introduced legislation tasking the attorney general’s office to initiate a civil rights investigation into the city’s police department.

“Rallying and holding protests means nothing if we don’t produce results,” said Cohen.

Mission District Supervisor David Campos pointed to a copy of an 2015 order issued by Police Chief Greg Suhr requiring his officers to “create time, distance, and establish a rapport with people in crisis who are only a danger to themselves.”

Campos challenged the officer’s compliance with this order when they shot Mario Woods, who was carrying a knife, on December 2, as well as the narrative Suhr gave reporters last week following Gongora’s death. Suhr said then that Gongora lunged at officers with a knife in the homeless encampment where he lived, but his narrative has been disputed by seven witness statements. Video footage of the incident showed that officers approached and killed Gongora in less than a minute.

“I don’t know that they followed their own policies. Yet what we are hearing from SFPD is that these officers were in compliance,” said Campos, adding that the department “needs to stop talking about what they think happened on any incident until their own investigation is complete.”

While questioning Mayor Ed Lee’s leadership in addressing the city’s “police crisis,” Campos said that unity between City Hall and the community is necessary in enacting reform.

Campos said that homeless activists should also be included in this movement.

“The mayor’s response to the killing of a homeless person by the police department has been to crackdown on the homeless,”  said Campos. Following last week’s shooting, Lee ordered the dismantling of homeless encampments throughout the city.

As the press conference concluded, some protesters headed towards the Mission where the town hall meeting for Gongora was held shortly after. Several protesters questioned the police department’s motive behind scheduling the public meeting at noon, making it difficult for many members of the public to attend.

“To hold a community meeting about this shooting in middle of day, doesn’t send the right message,” said Campos.

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