Police Chief Bill Scott spoke with some 40 community members at the Mission Neighborhood Center on Tuesday, addressing their concerns about police bias, community engagement, accountability — and the Police Officers Association.
Community members voiced their concerns as the San Francisco Police Department is attempting to complete 272 recommendations by the U.S. Department of Justice on bias, community policing, accountability and other issues — especially now that the Justice Department is no longer providing oversight.
Scott told those in attendance that the department is committed to completing the entire reform. He said 30 percent of the recommendations have been implemented, and 20 percent are in the approval process.
“That leaves 50 percent,” he said. “We are committed to doing all of that.”
But many still had questions for the police chief, who took over the SFPD in January.
“What do you plan to do to improve relations between the police force and communities of color?” asked Monica Chinchilla, who works at the Mission Neighborhood Center.
Scott said the department has been undergoing a number of “structural changes” that include the newly created community engagement division, which he said would help the department better strategize on community-oriented policy. He also said body-worn cameras will allow the community to more easily hold police accountable.
“The main thing, though, in getting the trust of the community is … how we treat people when we come into contact with them,” he said.
“The structural stuff will help, but if our men and women aren’t treating you right, it breaks down right there,” he added.
In a lengthy address to the chief, community activist Roberto Hernandez asserted that the police department has been through numerous reform efforts, but has had little to show for it. He cited the case of Idriss Stelley, a man who was shot and killed by police at the Metreon in 2001.
“With all this history of reform, what assurances do we have that this is not going to continue to happen?” Hernandez asked.
In response, Scott said that, ultimately, the community needs to hold the department accountable.
“The accountability lies here,” Scott said, looking around the room. “You all have the power to keep us accountable to what we promise.”
Another recurring theme of the evening was the Police Officers Association, which community members blamed for keeping the department from true reform.
“You really have to do something about the Police Officer’s Association union,” said Valerie Tulier. “I’ve seen over the years, they defend wrong-doers. That sends a message to our communities that there’s no justice — that they get to keep their jobs.”
Scott said that, as police chief, he has to “navigate the waters” of the Police Officers Association, and that although many believe the union runs the department, “that’s not the case.”
“They have a role,” he said. “But they don’t manage the operations of the department.”
“There are times where we disagree,” he added. “We just try to stay focused on doing the right thing.”
During a brief address to community members before the Q&A session began, District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen took a shot at the police union as she praised Scott for what she felt was his sincerity, earnestness, and outsider status.
“There’s been an experience that we’ve had, especially in the Mission District, with the Police Officers Association that hasn’t been quite so positive,” she said. “So having a chief come from outside who … has the ability to lead with fresh eyes in San Francisco is very important.”
The Police Commission, in fact, selected Scott instead of the candidate favored by the association. And, in late October, he promoted seven black officers, giving the SFPD 19 black officers in leadership positions — the largest number ever.
One of the officers promoted, Yulanda Williams, was attacked by the association in February 2016 when she accused the SFPD of institutional racism. She was called racist and sexist names during the 2015 police texting scandal — one of the events that ultimately led to the Justice Department reforms.
“I think we’re a good department,” Scott said at one point. “We need to be better.”