San Francisco supervisors challenged Acting Police Chief Toney Chaplin on his commitment to reform at a Tuesday hearing at the Board of Supervisors.
Supervisors asked pointed questions about everything from Chaplin’s ability to push back against the influential police union to working towards changing department culture.
“We are getting all this talk about things happening and implementation, but I don’t see implementation action,” said Supervisor John Avalos, addressing Chaplin at the hearing called to discuss recommendations made by the Blue Ribbon Panel.
The panel issued a scathing report in July that found the San Francisco Police Department’s practices to be inherently biased.
Comprised of volunteer judges and lawyers, the panel was formed in May 2015 after the police department released transcripts of bigoted text messages exchanged between a group of officers. The panel was tasked with probing into the department’s transparency, accountability and fair practices.
With its year-long investigation completed, the panel determined that the department is in need of major overhaul in most of those areas, including oversight and combating racist policing practices.
On Tuesday, its members were called on by the supervisors to testify about bias that they found to be systemic and relating directly to the department’s culture.
“We found bias against people of color,” said former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso, one of three judges who led the panel. “We can have all the good regulations intact, but without having a change in the culture of the department, things will not change.”
Avalos questioned Chaplin about why his department has not formally responded to the panel’s 81 recommendations, which the department received in July. So far police officials have failed to report on how they will will tackle the department’s problems.
Not all of the changes fall on Chaplin’s shoulders – leadership by the board in holding the department accountable through external oversight is key, said Reynoso.
“Without this board being actively involved, I don’t think anything will happen,” he said, and recommended “constant evaluation” by the supervisors to ensure that, even if changes are made,” the department doesn’t revert back to old practices.
Other recommendations concerning accountability were critical of the District Attorney’s Office, which promptly – within 30 days of the panel publishing the report– responded with a written report on which changes will be implemented. Avalos demanded that Chaplin do the same by establishing timelines that detail how he would prioritize and enact the recommendations.
But Chaplin pushed back by detailing some of the changes are either underway or already have been made since he stepped into the department’s leadership in May.
His predecessor, Greg Suhr, resigned then, following a series of controversial police shootings and community persistent calls for his removal.
“I presented a package of reforms that we have already implemented. One of the biggest centerpieces is ‘use of force’,” he said, adding that his officers have received focused training and instructions around de-escalation.
Chaplin said that the training’s success can be measured in police “not shooting people we don’t have to shoot.”
Avalos pressed on, saying that changes to the use of force was not the only issue that the department has to fix.
While a new use of force policy was unanimously approved by the Police Commission in June, it is still pending approval by the department’s union, the Police Officer’s Association, and has yet to be implemented.
He demanded to know what the interim chief was doing to ensure accountability and to separate the department from the police union’s influence.
The police union has publicly called the Blue Ribbon panel a “kangaroo court” and is accused of running the police department.
Chaplin said the roll-out of body cameras is a major step towards holding officers accountable for their conduct. “That’s a huge transparency piece,” he said.
“What is your strategy around getting around the POA?” the supervisor wanted to know referring to the police union, which most SFPD officers belong to.
Mission District Supervisor David Campos said that the union’s endorsement of Chaplin as the city’s next police chief is the “biggest strike that you have against you.”
“I’m not coupled to the POA. I sit down and have to negotiate with them,” said Chaplin, adding that the department and the union are “not the same.”
Moments earlier, members of the panel who testified about the findings of their investigation had taken special aim at the police union for continuously standing in the way of police transparency and for perpetuating a culture throughout the department that values – and often forces – a code of silence upon its officers.
Intimidation tactics on the rank-and-file as well as their disciplinary body, the Police Commission, became evident in the panel’s year-long study of department, testified several panel members.
As they attempted to conduct interviews with the officers, many related fears of retaliation.
Panel member LaDoris Cordell, a former police auditor for the city of San Jose, called the police union the department’s “biggest obstacle to reform.”
Chaplin said that a meeting was scheduled with the union in which he would confront them with some “sticking points,” adding that changes and reforms are always subject to a process.
Avalos, countering that the union has fought reform all along the way, advised Chaplin to “stick it to the union.”
Supervisor Malia Cohen echoed Avalos’ call for a timeline on implementing the changes.
“There needs to be a definite push on the police department for answers and timelines,” said Cohen. “We don’t want to lose this momentum.”
Advocates who have been calling for police reform said that the report confirmed what they had been saying and urged the supervisors to ensure police compliance.
“Sometimes you have to force change,” said Minister Christopher Muhammad, a leader in the police accountability movement. “Don’t disrespect these judges by allowing their report to be put in a place where you say, “yes we will look at it.”