In an interview with Mission Local this week, Police Chief Bill Scott talked about a range of issues, including the culture shift in the force he took over nearly a year ago, the need for more services to keep at-risk youth from falling deeper into the criminal justice system and new minimum requirements for community engagement.

Formerly the deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Scott did not arrive at an easy time. “There were a lot of vocal opinions that we needed to improve in a lot of areas, which is why I got here in the first place,” said Scott. “But on the other hand there are a lot of people in this city that think the SFPD is doing a pretty good job, not that we don’t need to improve, but that we’re doing a pretty good job.”

Scott’s hiring was precipitated by a series of incidents that put the police at odds with communities of color: a batch of blatantly racist and homophobic text messages exchanged by officers were exposed and a number of controversial police shootings occurred. By May 2016, after police shot and killed a 27-year-old woman — the third officer-involved shooting in one year — Mayor Ed Lee asked for former Police Chief Greg Suhr’s resignation.  

Still, the city did not completely embrace the new chief. Critics disrupted his swearing-in ceremony in January, and it was no secret that the Police Officers Association preferred an insider. But Scott has proceeded, seemingly resolute in making the SFPD a better force. It’s too soon to tell whether he will succeed in making changes that will endure, and if he will be able to gain the trust of the SFPD’s critics.   

He acknowledged those critics, and said their input had helped change the force. “Some of the most vocal folks are people who are really concentrating on those very weaknesses and flaws, which make us want to improve — at least me, from a personal standpoint as the chief of police, it makes me want to improve, to do better, because some of it, the most of it, is with very good reason,” he said. “So I don’t see it (criticism) as a concern. I see it as an opportunity. There are a lot of good things out there that can come from people pointing out where we need to improve.”

As one example, Scott pointed to the change in the department’s Crisis Intervention Training. Although the department had been doing CIT training since 2011, he said, the criticism made them take a new look at it. Officers traveled across the country to look at best practices and today, he said, SFPD’s crisis intervention training is “on the forefront of that issue.”

“That was a result of community input and community displeasure with how we were handling those issues,” he said.

“Yes, I think the culture is shifting,” Scott added. “The culture can undermine policies if left unchecked and if it is a negative culture,” he said. “ I won’t go so far as to say this culture is a negative culture in that regard, but it has shifted in a number of ways.”

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Scott also addressed the issue of accountability, and said that in some instances, the system moved too slowly.

So far, only six of the 18 officers allegedly involved in the texting scandal have left the force, he said. The other cases are caught up in litigation. While he said he would like officers held accountable in a more timely process — one that would be fairer to both parties — he said that moving too hastily could be reckless.

“You’ve got the organization’s reputation at stake, people’s lives at stake, and that really needs to be thought through,” he said.  

In the 50-minute interview, it was clear that Scott, an officer who rose through the LAPD and witnessed its reform from the vantage point of different ranks, is not a leader who goes for the pat answer, but one who engages with the complexity of criminal justice and the changing nature of police work.

In the often-fraught relationship between police and communities of color, he saw no easy resolution, but he also offered some ways in which the department and the city could engage with communities of color and at-risk youth.

Confronted with the question of the disproportionate number of traffic stops on African Americans, Scott spoke of the cycles of crime that can throw the statistics “out of whack.”

Indeed, use-of-force data released by the SFPD for the third quarter of 2017 showed that blacks, who make up less than six percent of the city’s population, made up 24 percent of traffic stops. What’s more, even though the group made up only 24 percent of the stops, they comprised 45.6 percent of searches as a result of those stops.

“A lot of these things are so deeply rooted in other issues that what we need to look at is not just the context of the stops, but everything that feeds into it,” Scott said.

He said that one of the possible examples of why people of color are disproportionately searched is because they are more likely to be on probation or parole.

“Then you have to go back and say, well, how come so many of that group is on probation or on parole?” he said. “It’s kind of a self-feeding, vicious circle.”

Scott said he felt the police department can often be the “tip of the spear” in confronting the social inequities foisted onto — and perhaps perpetuated by — the criminal justice system. The department, he said, needs to examine its role.

“But you can’t escape the fact that in our society, there are so many issues that feed into what we’re talking about here, let’s not ignore those issues as well,” he said, emphasizing the relationship between inequities in the education system and those of the criminal justice system.

“Those numbers are skewed against people of color as well,” he said. “We (the police department) need to own our part of it, but let’s not ignore the rest of it.”

To that end, Scott talked about the need to prevent crime through more community organizations and wrap-around services for at-risk youth. The city, he said, is short of those services. He said an abundance of non-violent offenders are introduced into the criminal justice system at an early age with few viable exits.

“What do you get to try to break that trajectory of getting more deeply ingrained into this life of things that are counterproductive, not only to society but to your own well-being?” he asked. “What do you get?”

“I don’t think the capacity has caught up with the idea that there are other ways to treat these symptoms other than prison,” he said. “I don’t think there’s enough community-based organizations that are funded to treat this part of our society — and that’s a huge part of our society.”

But the chief recognized that his department needs to do its part in building relationships with certain communities in the city. This, he said, should come through more frequent face-to-face “sitdowns” with young people in at-risk communities, who are often leery of police.

“Because when you sit down face-to-face with people as two human beings, and you’re talking about these issues in a non-confrontational setting, it’s a totally different environment, and then you can really get to what some of the issues are,” he said. “That needs to happen a whole lot more.”  

Yet building those relationships, he said, is not always easy, as he believes that the department “is doing good community police work,” but the audience for that work is often composed of people who are already inclined to engage with officers.

“What’s more difficult is having that dialogue with people that don’t necessarily want to engage or care to engage, because what’s in their mind about law enforcement is negative,” he said. “That’s what’s more difficult.”

In terms of general community relations, Scott said that in the next few months residents will be seeing a more standardized way in which their local district stations interact with them. For years, community engagement has been at the purview of the local captains, but now it is a command staff division, and there will be minimum requirements across the city — including monthly meetings, a newsletter and advisory boards.

“Where we fell short, according to the assessment report, was that there was not this overarching strategic community policing culture that was being driven from the top of the organization through the organization,” he said. “So that’s changing, and I think the officers are understanding the importance of that.”

Finally, Scott addressed questions about the fate of 272 recommended reforms from the U.S. Department of Justice, which in September ended its formal oversight of SFPD’s progress.

Later that month, Scott told the Board of Supervisors that, in the Justice Department’s absence, he intends to “replicate and go beyond” the reform structure the federal body put forth. This, he said, means hiring personnel to finish a progress report, as well as a final report that was to be completed at the end of the 18-month reform process.  

“Who will take the place of the U.S. DOJ is in the works right now,” he said, noting that the department will “hopefully disclose something in the next couple weeks.”

Scott said he’d like to “go beyond” the Justice Department’s structure by contracting several more “follow-up” reports after the 18-month effort is complete. “So we can report as to whether the recommendations that we put in place are really being sustained,” he said.

The follow-up, he said, is to “make sure this is not just something we’re doing just to check a box. We’re really trying to change the DNA of the department in a good way.”

The interview was part of a collaboration, Covering the Police,  with students from the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley and included Charlotte Silver, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Mureithi, Zoe Ferrigno, Marian Carrasquero, Nikka Singh, Sam Goldman, Susie Neilson, Emma Schwartz, JoeBill Muñoz, Kaitlin Benz, Mallory Newman, Bo Kovitz and Lydia Chávez.