Covering the Police is a collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism.

The director’s chair at SFPD’s Department of Police Accountability was still spinning in June when 50-year-old Paul Henderson was seated as the organization’s interim director. He is the fourth person to hold the position this year.

“I think we’re at a pivotal time with the DPA,” said Henderson, a mayoral appointee. “We’re having conversations that we’ve never had before in this country about, ‘does police accountability exist? And if it does, what does it look like?’”

The department Henderson oversees is the main SFPD watchdog for citizens. And, last year, San Francisco voters increased its mandate, giving it the power to audit officer-involved shootings more closely, and allowing it to conduct independent investigations without having to wait for a complaint to be filed by a citizen. Even its name was changed to more directly address its responsibility. Formerly the Office of Citizen Complaints, it became the Department of Police Accountability.

In addition to investigating the hundreds of complaints filed by residents, the biggest task on its plate is advising the Police Commission and SFPD on a document that outlines how Tasers — if approved by the commission — will be used by the SFPD. The commission will vote on Tasers as early as this evening.

Although Henderson says he wants to be the next permanent director — and some say he would do a good job — a search has yet to begin. In the meantime, an office that was reeling from a year of leadership changes has yet to find its equilibrium.

“The voters have come through time and time again to support the [DPA] and to enhance its jurisdiction, and so, it’s so important that its leadership be up there on par with the expectations of the agency,” said Barbara Attard, a police accountability expert.

Nevertheless, she said, “The position has been vacant now for several months, since June, and I haven’t heard that they’re doing a national search yet for this office … so I think that that’s a real indicator if there’s the political will to make that office work.”

The turmoil began long before Joyce Hicks, the 10-year director of the organization, resigned in April 2016 after employees complained about her lack of leadership, according to the San Francisco Examiner.

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Hicks’ successor, Roberto Manuel Fortes, was promoted to director — then resigned one month later amid allegations of sexual harassment stemming from a 2014 incident. In-between those terms, Erick Balthazar, deputy director, kept the seat warm.

Until further notice, Henderson is behind the wheel of San Francisco’s most powerful police accountability organization, which has seen its budget inflate to $7.8 million.

The Bayview native and son of a civil rights lawyer oversees 35 positions, including a chief investigator, three senior investigators, 17 line investigators, four attorneys and 11 other support staff positions.

Since Mayor Ed Lee appointed his then-chief of staff to the interim position in June, Henderson’s main goal has been to reestablish the public’s trust in the department’s ability to lobby policies and reforms.

Henderson has taken no position on Tasers, which Hicks opposed. Instead, he seems more concerned with one of the main problems two reports have pointed out in the workings of the department: the inability to do much about some 700 citizen complaints a year charging police misconduct.

A 2016 report by the Blue Ribbon Panel, a police accountability review board instigated by the District Attorney, questioned whether it was even functionally possible for the department to live up to its name — to make officers accountable for their actions.

The report showed that 61 percent of citizen complaints against officers between 2011 and 2014 were “not sustained” — a legal term that means there was insufficient evidence to make a ruling.

For the other 29 percent of the complaints, investigators concluded that officers had acted properly, made no finding or the complaints were withdrawn.  

“Well under 10 percent” of the total number of complaints were sustained, but none were sustained for bias, according to the report.

Aaron Zisser, an attorney who worked at the office, wrote in a response to the panel’s findings that too many cases were ruled “not sustained.”

The Zisser report, as it is known, says a “not sustained” ruling should be rare, and the Department of Police Accountability should require its investigators to conduct further research into “he-said, she-said” scenarios.

When asked about these findings, Henderson said the reason behind the low number of sustained cases is that his department is prioritizing the more “substantive cases.”

“One of the first things I wanted to do when I came here was not to waste resources on cases that didn’t need full-year investigations,” Henderson said. “And instead use our limited resources on the substantive cases that looked like they could, and should, be sustained in terms of outcomes.”

Henderson says he has a sustained rate of 12 percent so far this year, compared to a 10 percent rate in 2016.

In terms of sustaining cases involving bias, Henderson can’t discuss the details of the investigations. “Over these past 90 days that I’ve been here, I know absolutely that some of our investigations that are ongoing involve bias,” he said. None, however, has been concluded.

When asked if he felt he was turning things around, and if he was making a case for the position of permanent director, he says, “I’m actually pretty confident that I have, I feel like there’s some objective and independent measures to evaluate that are pretty clear, at least for me. and I think they’ll be clear for the rest of the police commission, the board, the mayor’s office, or whomever else as well.”

For now, however, he’ll have to wait — for the investigations to conclude, for the national search to begin.