Among the recently promoted seven black San Francisco Police department officers is Sgt. Yulanda Williams. It was a move that put 19 black officers in the SFPD’s leadership ranks, the highest ever, and proves once again what a difference a year — and a change at the top — can make.
Only a year ago, the powerful union, known as the Police Officers Association, was making every attempt to discredit the veteran of 27 years after Williams offered the public a less-filtered view into the department.
In a series of racist texts, Williams was called a bitch. The messages triggered an inquiry, and Williams told investigators that the SFPD was a place with “widespread institutionalized bias.”
Instead of supporting her, the union fired back, lambasting her as “self-centered and grossly unfair.”
It got worse. Gary Delagnes, former president of the union and its current political consultant, denounced reporting incidents of racism or other bias as “snitching” and an effort to appease “cop haters.”
It wasn’t a pleasant time.
“In hindsight, I think I would have hoped that there had been more officers who had stepped up,” Williams reflects as she sits in her sparsely decorated cubicle in the community engagement unit at the Mission District police station. “But I get that people didn’t want to suffer the repercussions.”
In the end, the union’s power took a hit. Instead of appointing the insider favored by the union, Mayor Ed Lee chose an outsider, and named Police Chief William Scott from the Los Angeles Police Department.
By picking Scott, Marty Halloran, the president of the police union, said Lee had “turned his back on the rank and file police officers.” For many others, however, Scott is a welcome departure from the old guard.
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Williams calls Police Chief Scott the department’s “moral compass” and “the voice of change.” But just last year, when Williams became the only person willing to speak on record about racism in the department, she was the person fulfilling those roles.
“Fear can lead you into a place where you don’t want to be,” Williams said, stating a lesson she learned at a very young age. “I’ve seen what happens when people remain silent when they know something is wrong.”
Such statements are not offered blithely.
Nearly 40 years ago, when Williams was just 12 years old, she escaped the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana.
“That was truly a dictatorship, and people said nothing and did nothing, out of fear,” she said.
Williams entered SFPD in June 1990, when the department was under a federal consent decree to bring in more women and minorities. Twenty-seven years later, the department is still struggling to correct that problem, though they’ve long been out from under a decree.
Last year, the Justice Department report found that the department had a dearth of minorities in positions of leadership.
But the Blue Ribbon Panel, convened in the aftermath of the racist text messages, was far more damning, depicting systemic bias far too insidious to be fixed with a round of promotions.
Anand Subramanian, the panel’s executive director, describes Williams as “extremely brave” for speaking out against the union’s line, but stops short of celebrating a new era in the department just yet.
“It speaks well of the chief that he was able to promote Williams, despite some of the rancor her testimony caused in the union,” Subramanian told Mission Local.
“But a lot of the actual bias and potential for bias cannot be cured exclusively by a diverse police force and diverse leadership.”
One of the principal findings of the Blue Ribbon Panel that interviewed Williams was that the union exercised too much power and influence over the SFPD. This was exacerbated, according to Subramanian, by a lack of leadership in the SFPD, allowing the Police Officers Association to expand into the vacuum.
“When the POA said something inflammatory, like comparing our panel to the sniper in Dallas that killed police officers, interim Chief Toney Chaplin’s official response was ‘no comment,’” Subramanian recalled.
“That demonstrated an abdication of leadership,” he went on to say. “Maybe the chief thought he was being neutral, but it left the POA as the only voice.”
Williams withdrew her membership from the union in protest last year, prompting an exodus of other black officers following in her path. She has spent the last two years revitalizing Officers For Justice, an organization that advocates for black police officers.
She says she feels “very refreshed” to be out of the union. “I don’t have that stress on me,” she said, before clarifying that she is not an enemy of the union or of any police officer.
Now, Williams is focused on the future. She will become a Lieutenant after completing two weeks of training, and she looks forward to seeing how Scott will make use of the “19 new leaders, with 19 new ideas” that he now has at his disposal.
“I just have to look at the positive and the good,” she said. “I can’t reflect on all the negative, because if you do, then your sphere of being able to have a good day, and be successful in the remaining years of your career start to fluctuate and then you start to question everything that you do.”