Newest police commissioners work on accountability, tasers

Bill Ong Hing (left), and Robert Hirsch (right). Photo courtesy of Police Commission

The police commission has welcomed two new members since our last coverage of it in October. Here, they discuss some of the recent efforts of the commission.

The seven commissioners are civilians and receive a $100 stipend in exchange for setting policy and making disciplinary decisions for the San Francisco Police Department. They hold public meetings every Wednesday night.

Robert Hirsch

Appointed by Ed Lee in 2017

Courtesy of Police Commission

Robert Hirsch did not initially intend to get involved with police departments when he began his law career in mediation and arbitration, but in the 90s, that’s one of the directions it took him. From 1995 to 2000 he served as a hearing officer for the San Francisco Office of Citizen’s Complaints, which handles police conduct reviews and is now called the Department of Police Accountability. He runs his own firm, Robert Hirsch Law, where he acts as an outside party in disputes ranging from labor malpractice to claims of racial discrimination.

In the past few years, along with the rest of the country, he witnessed what he considered to be a systemic problem with the misuse of police force across the United States, particularly targeting African-American men. He decided he wanted a more direct role working to improve policing in his own hometown.

“You can either be part of the solution or part of the problem,” he said.

In May, Hirsch filled the spot left by Suzy Loftus, the commission’s former president, who resigned in January. He has spent his first two months as the commission representative to the police’s accountability working group, meeting with officers and attending informational meetings.

There is plenty to do. The department, he pointed out, is in the middle of a massive reform. Last October, it received 272 recommendations from the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services aimed at improving the city’s policing. The recommendations followed several officer-involved shootings. Hirsch has been focusing his efforts on implementing the recommendations he feels his expertise qualifies him to address.

“A lot of that goes into how complaints are handled by internal affairs,” he said. Much of his work is aimed at making these processes more transparent to the public, increasing their effectiveness and garnering faith from San Francisco residents.

Which, Hirsch noted, is a huge project.

He said, “I’m just getting my feet wet. It’s going to be a long process.”

Bill Ong Hing

Appointed by the Board of Supervisors in 2016

Courtesy of Police Commission

At the University of San Francisco School of Law, Bill Ong Hing teaches a class called Deportation Defense and Rebellious Lawyering Skills. In it, he offers an alternative — and, he says, more respectful — model of working with clients in which the client becomes an active part of the process. In immigration cases, for instance, Hing says the lawyer might ask the client to reach out to people he knows for letters of support, or the lawyer might try to partner with other ally organizations, such as the ACLU, to get legislation passed.

A police commissioner since December, when he filled the spot vacated by Victor Hwang, who now serves as a judge on the San Francisco Superior Court, Hing leads the immigration working group. He has also worked to make process for issuing a complaint against the department more user friendly, has contributed efforts to disbanding a reportedly discriminatory anti-terrorist task force, and is participating in the working group to determine whether officers should carry tasers.

As the leader of the immigration working group, Hing is particularly concerned with conserving the city’s sanctuary city status. On Wednesday, he led a meeting about the enforcement of immigration laws. Police Chief Bill Scott reaffirmed the department’s commitment to a policy that bars officers from asking people about their immigration status. The policy is meant to promote faith and in the police on the part of immigrant communities.

Right now, the taser question is a big one on Hing’s mind. One of the 272 recommendations from the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services was that the department should consider implementing tasers as a possible way to curb police shootings. Most other police departments already use tasers, so Hing thinks the city will eventually go with the tide. Still, he believes the police department and the commissioners should take more time to learn about tasers before making a decision. He says the issue is more complicated than it might initially appear.

First there is the fact that, contrary to popular knowledge, Hing said, tasers can be lethal, especially if  a person is tased multiple times.

There are also practical concerns having to do with the proximity an officer must be to a person to use a taser.

Even if tasers prove to be less lethal than guns, Hing worries implementing tasers as an alternative might work against the new use of force policy the department has recently implemented — a policy that encourage officers to avoid pulling out a weapon if possible. If the department introduces tasers, Hing worries officers might resort to the tasers rather than attempt to deescalate the situation. To use a taser, an officer must be closer to a suspect, again a requirement that goes against deescalation.

“I think we need more time to really learn about tasers before we make a decision,” he said.

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