In the coming months, Mission Local will be looking into Policing the Mission within the context of the national conversation on police reform. In that series, we will be diving deeper into the Report’s findings and recommendations, but this should prepare you for today’s hearings.
The Board of Supervisors will hold a hearing today on a blue ribbon report on racism in the San Francisco Police Department. The report is the result of a year-long inquiry by a blue ribbon panel put together by the District Attorney George Gascón. It represents the first response to the troubles plaguing the SFPD. It won’t be the last.
What is the Blue Ribbon Report?
The Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement (the Panel) was an advisory body to the San Francisco District Attorney established in May 2015 in response to the release of racist and homophobic text messages from 14 police officers within the San Francisco Police Department. Some examples that led officials to believe racism might be inherent:
• “Those guys are pretty stupid! Ask some dumb ass questions you would expect from a black rookie! Sorry if they are your buddies!”
• “I’m just leaving it like it is, painting KKK on the sides and calling it a day!”
• “Cross burning lowers blood pressure! I did the test myself!”
Note: Ian Furminger, an officer at the Mission District station who was among the 14 officers involved in what became known as textgate, was recently sentenced to 41 months in prison for other charges – stealing from suspects. The 13 other offices involved in textgate remain on the SFPD payroll, some attempts have been made to discipline or fire the officers, but so far, the courts have ruled that the texts are too old to prosecute the officers.
In its report, published last July, the Panel reviews the current state of affairs at the SFPD, making some 81 recommendations for change including Use of Force policy, Internal and External Oversight.
Why the Blue Ribbon Panel?
Based on the text messages, the DA convened the Panel to investigate the existence and extent of institutional bias (racism/sexism/homophobia) within the SFPD.
Since the establishment of the Panel, Mario Woods, Luis Gongora and Jessica Williams have been killed by police officers on duty, and a second text message scandal emerged.
Although locally focused the Report also responds to a growing alienation around the country between police departments and the communities, particularly the communities of color, they police.
Who Is On the Blue Ribbon Panel?
The Panel was comprised of three former judges from outside San Francisco: Judge LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, Justice Cruz Reynoso, Judge Dickran M. Tevrizian. Several downtown law firms staffed working groups with pro bono attorneys. The working groups studied the issue areas thought to be relevant to the question of institutional bias. Those areas include:
• Stops, Searches, and Arrests
• Use of Force and Officer-Involved Shootings
• Internal Discipline
• External Oversight
• Brady Policies and Practices
• Crime Data
What are the main takeaways from the Report?
The Panel makes no sweeping generalizations. Its conclusions are expressed in a series of findings and recommendations. Overall the Panel identifies significant deficiencies with respect to policy, practice, training, oversight, discipline, data collection, analysis and transparency.
For example, the Use of Force policy has not been formally reviewed for over 20 years, and is seriously out of date, according to the report. On the other hand, the Panel considers the existing policy prohibiting biased policing to be in line with “best practices” around the country. The problem is how those best practices are applied, according to the report.
One of the main issues raised nationally has been whether police unfairly target racial minorities for stops and detentions. The Panel found available data indicating significant racial disparities in the SFPD with respect to traffic stops.
Although records are kept on traffic stops, data on other stops is either inconsistent or non-existent, the Panel found. Racial data is not collected on any stops other than traffic stops. The traffic stop program began in 2001, but the panel found it is already outdated and evidence points to considerable non-compliance with its requirements.
A recent city ordinance mandates data collection and regular analysis and reporting on all stops. Implementation, however, is not required until 2019.
For a city that considers itself the epicenter of the tech transformation, the sections on the Department’s data collection, analysis and reporting will inspire many heads to shake in disbelief.
In 2015, the SFPD published two sets of crime statistics. The Department has not clarified the cause of the discrepancy. Over the past five years, SFPD crime data reporting has diminished, according to the Panel.
Although the Department may seem stuck in the 1980s with respect to data, readers may feel sections dealing with accountability and discipline stretch back to the 1950s.
The Report found that the internal discipline process is “opaque.” For example, when the Panel requested that the SFPD provide it with the number of bias complaints investigated or sustained over the last five years, the SFPD could not respond to the request because it did not track this data, or the outcomes of its disciplinary cases.
External oversight provided by the Police Commission and the Office of Citizen Complaints don’t help much. The Panel found Complaints made to the Office of Citizen Complaints rarely result in disciplinary consequences (under 10% of claims were sustained), and when they do, the discipline imposed is almost always mild.
Is the Report worth reading?
It depends how interested you are in the recent trials and tribulations of law enforcement in San Francisco. It is not a “good read” or at 250 pages (plus appendices) a particularly fast one. The over-lawyerly language as expected, doesn’t help. The recommendations are in line with President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, which was fully endorsed by the SFPD.
There are two relatively juicy sections, the sub-chapter on Methodology and the chapter on Culture. They also offer a sense of why making reforms will not be easy.
The Panel was a creation of the DA’s office and did not have the power to compel testimony, document production or even polite cooperation from the SFPD. Because the SFPD was less than forthcoming, the main question regarding institutional bias could not be answered with any kind of specificity or certainty.
From the outset, the Police Officers Association (the Police Union) bitterly opposed the project. Martin Halloran, the police union’s president, accused DA George Gascon of political grandstanding:
Mr. Gascón’s attack on our department regarding our supposed “systemic racism” is self-serving and baseless. For someone who has bragged of his involvement in prior police scandals, it is baffling and astounding that he would use inappropriate text messaging by a handful of our officers to attempt to tarnish our entire department.
The sub-chapter on Methodology describes, sometimes in gory detail, the passive-aggressive cooperation the Department offered the Panel when it sought documents, testimony or data. Denial, delay, slow-walking, under-staffing were among the common bureaucratic tactics employed to annoy the Panelists if not subvert the process entirely.
In reply, the Report lets loose on the Police Officers Association in the chapter on SFPD Culture. In the Introduction, the Panel sets up its case.
It is common sense that a law enforcement agency ‘can have the best policies in the world, but if [its] institutional culture doesn’t support them, they won’t work.
The Chapter on Culture makes clear the Panel thinks the SFPD culture has got to change. Big Time.
The Panel’s work on Culture at the SFPD was based entirely on interviews with current and past SFPD officers. There were two sets of interviewees. One set was comprised of officers suggested by the police union. These officers agreed to individual instances of racism, but no evidence in their experience would point to widespread or institutional bias.
The second group was comprised of officers who testified to the panel confidentially. These officers, including President of Officers for Justice Sergeant Yulanda Williams, stated categorically that, based on their experience, widespread discrimination and systemic bias exists within the SFPD.
Finally, the Panel takes note of a group of officers who did not testify for fear of retaliation by the SFPD or the POA. They may have had reason.
After her testimony, which detailed the reasons she gave for the existence of institutional bias, Halloran, the police union president, sent an open letter to Sergeant Williams complaining that her testimony was “self-centered and grossly unfair.”
Sergeant Williams viewed the Halloran letter as an open threat, saying she felt “unsafe on patrol” and “a personal attack against me and my constitutional rights of freedom of speech…. It sends a clear message that when you go against what they believe in you are then considered an outsider, an outcast and they attempt to slander your name.”
What can we expect from the Board of Supervisors?
For those hoping for local political dramatics and some possible fireworks, the meeting begins at 3 p.m. and is scheduled go last until 6 p.m.
For those hoping for meaningful, remedial, action, don’t hold your breath. Though the Report portrays a City Department in dire need of reform, it has no official status, and its recommendations are just that, recommendations.
As it is the first report off the block, it may provide the framework for further discussions and, with luck, contribute to the consolidation of the political will it will make to the changes the Report recommends.