In the wake of former Police Commission President Julius Turman’s death last Saturday evening, friends and colleges remembered the Alabama native as a man with a quick wit and fighting spirit who was committed to public service until the very end.
Turman, 52, died at his home in Potrero Hill of undisclosed complications – what a family member described as “basically cancer.”
“He loved this city,” said former District 9 Supervisor David Campos, who met Turman some 20 years ago at a private law firm in San Francisco and who he considered an “older brother.”
At the time, both were young, hungry to do good and had their eyes on City Hall, Campos said.
“We both knew that we both wanted to be in public service,” he said.
Turman’s journey to San Francisco, where he became president of the Police Commission during one of the city’s most difficult periods, was far from predictable — but it’s clear that his upbringing shaded his unusual combination of compassion and grit.
Julius Lawrence Turman, the third of six siblings, was born on July 15, 1965, in his grandfather’s Montgomery, Alabama, home, said his older brother, Charlie Turman III, who moved to New Mexico after retiring from the auto industry.
Their parents were Charlie Turman Jr. and Cleo Dillard Turman.
When Julius was only a few months old, his parents left the South and moved to Lansing, Michigan, where they found work in the auto industry. His mother went on to become a nurse for Alzheimer’s patients.
“We were part of the migration where people brought kids up north, away from the Jim Crow south,” Charlie Turman said. “A better life is what we found.”
Julius was aspirational from an early age, excelling in academics and sports, particularly football and wrestling. Charlie and Julius also sang together in the choir.
“He wanted something special as a kid,” Charlie recalled. “He was very bright, always a very good student.”
Charlie also remembered his brother as a “fighter,” one who would stick up for others including his older brother and friend named Julie, who kids often picked on.
“He would get suspended for getting in fights for her,” Charlie recalled. “Our mom said, ‘You have to stop hangin’ around that girl, because you’ll keep getting suspended.’”
“He’s always been that way,” Charlie added.
Turman graduated high school in 1983, moving on to the University of Michigan, where he majored in political science and became the president of his fraternity. In 1993, he graduated with a Juris Doctor from Rutgers Law School in New Jersey.
He clerked for Judge John J. Hughes in the District of New Jersey, and later served as an assistant U.S. Attorney in New Jersey.
Then, around 1998, Turman moved to San Francisco to take a job at Howard Rice, a private law firm where he met Campos. “He wanted to be in a place that was more accepting,” Campos said.
As Campos moved to the public sector, Turman remained in the world of private practice, becoming a respected labor and employment lawyer who eventually headed the office of Constangy, Brooks, Smith, and Prophete, a workplace law firm.
“He was an excellent lawyer and not afraid to help people,” Campos said. “You knew that he was ready to help whoever needed it.”
Before serving on the Police Commission, he was a co-chair of Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club. He was also a lawyer for And Castro For All, an organization that seeks to foster inclusion in the community.
Beginning in 2011, Turman replaced Jim Hammer on the San Francisco Police Commission, a body tasked with setting the San Francisco Police Department’s policies and conducting disciplinary hearings on officers.
“As an African American gay man, he always understood the criminal justice system had an important role in people’s lives, and he wanted a police department that was responsible to communities of color,” Campos said.
Former Police Commission President Suzy Loftus agreed. He was attracted to the commission because of “his understanding of the challenges of the African American and the LGBT community have felt with police,” she said.
Reverend Dr. Amos Brown of the NAACP, who met Turman as the city’s African American community was reeling in the wake of the Ferguson, Missouri, protests, said Turman was especially active during that time.
“It was because of him that San Francisco was spared the trauma and challenge in the black community with the police department,” Brown said, noting that Turman made it a point to meet with the faith community as the city confronted a minority community that was increasingly angry about the SFPD.
“He was a person who listens,” Brown added.
Before joining the commission, however, some questioned Turman’s fitness for the role after domestic abuse allegations by a former boyfriend, Philip Horne, surfaced. Kamala Harris, then the San Francisco District Attorney, declined to file charges in 2007, but Turman settled a civil lawsuit with Horne for an undisclosed amount.
Nevertheless, Turman won the seat and remained on the commission for the next seven years. He became vice president of the commission in 2014 and president in 2017.
“He was kind of a bridge between all of us,” said longtime police commissioner Petra DeJesus. “He was able to communicate really well — on the Board of Supervisors side and Mayor’s Office side.”
Loftus, who served with Turman on the board for some five years before she stepped down, said she and Turman formed a lasting “partnership” when she joined in 2012. That partnership, she said, helped the commission handle a series of controversial police shootings, as well as two scandals involving bigoted text messages that raised questions about deep-seated bias in the department’s culture — times Loftus called “challenging.”
“There wasn’t a time we weren’t talking every day,” Loftus said, even after she left the commission.
As president, Turman facilitated the department’s revision of its use-of-force policy, the implementation of body-worn cameras and the historic but controversial vote to arm police with Tasers.
“His time on the Police Commission was very personal, and a labor of love,” said Loftus.
During meetings, Turman could be feisty, preferring hearings to move quickly and sometimes scolding people for holding things up. It did not matter if you were a public commenter, commissioner, or a high-ranking officer — Turman was intent on keeping things moving. He also had an eye for detail and a fierce belief in the commission’s power.
As Commissioner Bob Hirsch said at Turman’s last meeting, echoing many of his colleagues: “Your bedside manner can be rough, but your heart and mind are admirable.”
Those close to Turman, like Loftus, Campos, and his brother Charlie, said that Turman enjoyed traveling and living the high life with parties and fine dining. He would hold an annual Christmas party at his house, which Loftus said was filled with books.
At those parties, she said, he would don a Santa hat and pass out carefully selected books to each kid. After Turman died, Loftus said, “My youngest daughter asked where we would go for Christmas and who will give out books.”
She noted, too, that Turman was somewhat of an Anglophile; the two would talk about the Royal Family. She said they joked that their only disagreement was that Turman was part of “team Camilla” (in reference to Prince Charles’ decision to make Camilla Parker the queen after Queen Elizabeth’s death).
Loftus declined to comment on Turman’s illness. But DeJesus, Campos, Brown, and even his brother Charlie, all said they knew Turman was ill, but did not know to what extent.
“He didn’t want to bother anyone and didn’t want anyone to make a fuss over him,” Charlie said. “Julius knew about this long before he let anyone in on it.”
DeJesus said that, looking back, “he did look iller and did walk slower.”
“We knew he was ill and not how ill, and we knew he was private about that,” Campos said.
He added that he was surprised Turman stayed on the commission until the very end. “Most of us, if we knew we had a terminal illness, wouldn’t do that.”