Photo by Julian Mark

And with a position open in LA, will he stay long enough to find out?

A t a town hall meeting called to address a recent Mission District police shooting, Police Chief Bill Scott sat in the gym of Cesar Chavez Elementary, facing a crowd of more than 200 outraged community members.

Another young man of color had been slain at the hands of police, and years of mounting animus needed to be directed at someone. That person was Scott. And it lasted for more than three hours.

“You’re in the hot seat, Scott,” one community member said.

And not only with the community.  

Just days before, Scott had “released” a rookie cop for fatally shooting a fleeing suspect in the Bayview. This time, the fury came not from the community, but from his own men: the San Francisco Police Officers Association, a group unhappy with an officer being released or fired. 

“There has to be accountability into behaviors,” Scott said in an interview with Mission Local last November, “and with accountability comes changes in the culture.”

Scott’s entrance a little more than a year ago into the San Francisco Police Department was seen as a turning point for an embattled force of more than 2,000 sworn officers, its culture and seemingly absent sense of accountability.

It was fresh off the heels of two independent reviews called in response to a number of controversial police shootings and two scandals involving bigoted and sexist text messages exchanged between officers (text messages that only came to light because of an investigation of corruption by officers in the department).

Still, some wonder if Scott has been able to change much in San Francisco. And now there is also a question of whether he will be around long enough to make any real changes.  On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Scott was scheduled to be interviewed for Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, where he served as a deputy chief before coming to San Francisco last January.

Scott would not confirm the report Wednesday evening at City Hall — but he did not explicitly deny it.

“The focus is here,” he said, mentioning the reforms. “And that’s where it needs to be for now.”

Others agree, and offered a look at how Scott has done so far.

“His style is very keep-your-head-down, and choose your battles very carefully,” said Father Richard Smith, a Mission District-based police reform advocate. “My fear is that it’s not in line with the crisis we have right now. We are in crisis mode, despite SFPD claims that it is implementing reforms.”

Mission Local spoke to nine policy experts, activists and police officers to determine whether Scott, now a year and four months into his tenure, has actually proven the department’s next step to reform. Scott, who was given a detailed list of questions, declined to comment for this article.  

Many applauded his horn-locking with the bellicose police union – which many consider a hindrance of reform – while others said Scott’s efforts have been too little, too late.   

More than anything, those observing Scott, from both inside and outside the organization, say the chief cannot reform the department alone – he needs the help of City Hall and, most of all, his own rank-and-file officers — the support of which some accuse Scott of not fostering.

Moreover, some said the chief erred in keeping or promoting much of the same command staff from the days of Scott’s predecessor, Greg Suhr.  

“We’re just not seeing reforms on the streets,” Smith said. “They might be in a file drawer somewhere, maybe in someone’s head, but not on the streets. I mean, 99 shots?” he said referring to a recent police shooting in the Mission.  

Command Staff

F or Chief Scott to truly set the department on the path to reform, he needs a new command staff, asserted two SFPD officers who asked for anonymity out of fear of retaliation — although both said it might be too late for that. 

Both said that, in many ways, the reforms are being implemented in a vacuum — signed off on on paper, but not filtered down into lower ranks by a command staff leftover from Suhr’s tenure. One of the officers challenged this reporter to ask any lower-ranking officer about the intention of the Department of Justice recommendations. “They’re going to say, ‘I don’t know.’”

Conversely, it’s unclear if the community’s recommendations are making their way to their chief. Many stakeholders complained that, after they gave their input, the policymaking undertaken by the department was opaque at best. The working groups are led by Scott’s command staff.

“I think it’s a little bit too late,” said one of the officers regarding Scott’s ability to change the department. “He’s been here over a year, and he still has the same command staff.”

Indeed, while some expected a shakeup of SFPD’s top brass following Scott’s swearing-in, the chief opted to either keep or promote many of the commanders who served under Suhr. Assistant chiefs Tony Chaplin and Hector Sainez, as well as deputy chiefs Mikail Ali and Denise Schmitt, were deputy chiefs under Suhr.

Deputy Chief Michael Redmond remained in charge of the operation’s bureau, and Commander Robert Moser kept his place as head of the Investigations Bureau. Many others remained or were promoted.

The officer further asserted that Scott has been largely siloed off from the rank-and-file officers — the very people he needs to follow him on his path to reform. And if he were to visit officers at the station level, he needs to do so without his command staff present, the officer said.

“He still has officers who say he hasn’t visited locations in their department,” the officer said. “They feel they don’t matter.”

“To change the department, you have to first be embraced by the department,” the officer added. “He can’t do it isolated by himself, and not even with his command staff. Because he’s not out there each day with citizens.”

Likewise, another officer described Scott as isolated from much of the department — that he and his command staff have not made serious efforts to reach down into the department. “He’s relying on (a staff) who’s not connected to rank-and-file to begin with,” the officer said, noting that neither of his assistant chiefs served as district captains.

Moreover, that officer charged that Scott did not interview any of the command staff before keeping or promoting them. The officer said Scott did not vet the talent in the organization who would be willing to adopt his agenda.

“How do you really know what’s going on in this place?” the officer said.  

The officer asserted, too, that Scott has canceled the last six monthly commissioned-ranked meetings — composed of mostly captains and lieutenants. Commissioned-ranked officers, the officer said, are responsible for setting the tone at each district station, and if Scott is not meeting with them regularly, how can he truly implement his new policies and create change? the officer asked.

“You have to bring people together,” the officer continued. “If you’re not able to bring people on your team together, how are you able to fight people who aren’t on your team?”

One retired officer who, like the others, asked to remain anonymous, also described Scott as “walled off” and “not in touch.”

“He’s a delegating executive and not in tune with what’s going on — he doesn’t have his ear to the ground,” the officer said. “It’s like he’s telecommuting.”

That officer said Scott needs to show up to more crime scenes and district stations. “Just for the appearance that says, ‘I’m with you guys.’”  

All three of the officers agreed that Scott cannot make lasting and meaningful changes in the department if he remains hidden behind a wall of deputies and commanders.

“Simply because we have an outsider with different lens, it doesn’t mean he’s doing a good job,” the officer said. “And just because he’s fighting POA, doesn’t mean he’s doing his job.”

Scott and the POA

S till, many stakeholders and policy experts in the collaborative reform process are reassured by Scott’s sword-crossing with the Police Officers Association.

Last November, Scott decided to take his commanders — who are heavily involved in the reform effort — out of the union, which also has a say, via the contract negotiation process, on how policies are implemented.  

In February, the chief wrote a letter to the Department of Elections blasting the union’s decision to put a measure on the June ballot asking voters to approve tasers. This earned him the full and public wrath of Martin Halloran, the union president.

“Unfortunately, the Chief allowed himself to be played like a cheap fiddle by some on the Police Commission who have their own agenda,” Halloran wrote in the union newsletter. “He should get rid of whoever is advising — otherwise, he is going to drive an irreparable wedge between himself and the membership.”

In March, Scott fired Christopher Samayoa, a rookie cop who fatally shot an unarmed carjacking suspect in the Bayview last December — a move that also prompted barbs from the union.

This Chief has demonstrated his lack of care or concern for his officers on too many occasions and this latest misguided action will not go unanswered by the POA,” Halloran wrote.

Barbara Attard, a long-time police accountability consultant who was an early member of the Office of Citizen Complaints, now the Department of Police Accountability, said she’s been impressed with Scott’s work on the reforms and standing up to the union.  

“He needs to keep doing what he’s doing — being independent and going forward with the reforms,” she added. “That’s why the backlash is so strong from the POA.”

Anand Subramanian is a senior policy director at PolicyLink who led the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability and Fairness in Law Enforcement, a report commissioned by the District Attorney that examined systemic bias in the SFPD.

During its probe, Subramanian said, it found that the union, known as the POA, had influence over the SFPD in its culture and policy-making. Past chiefs, he said, rarely stood up to the union, as it used “divisive tactics” and “outlandish rhetoric.”

Scott, he said, has shown clear leadership on the policy side, citing his taking commanders out of the union, his opposition to Proposition H and his firing of Samayoa.

But, Subramanian said, “The chief needs to talk to his officers as though their membership in the department is more important than membership in POA.”

“The POA does a good job convincing its membership that there’s no difference between members and POA as a political entity,” he said.

To change culture, however, Subramanian said Scott needs to feel comfortable firing cops, even if the union fights back.

“The idea that the POA can spin something like that into the notion that he doesn’t have your back is the main problem,” he said. “Whenever an officer tries to do the right thing, they blast them for it and call it a lack of loyalty — whether it’s a whistleblower or chief trying to hold officers accountable.”  

That notion is crucial, says John Talbott, a business-development expert who sits on the bias and accountability working groups. He said using strict discipline on members who do not follow procedure is crucial for changing an organization, and Scott’s decision to fire Samayoa was an important step in underscoring the idea that there are consequences for failing to follow procedures.

If the union is going to fight you with high paid lawyers on anything you do like that, then you can see how they’re going to obstruct change,” he said.

Halloran did not respond to requests for comment, but POA leadership has consistently denied that it is obstructing change. The union stated early on that it supported the DOJ reforms.

Father Smith said Scott should not be afraid to challenge the POA. “Past chiefs have lived in fear of the POA,” he said. “They’ve had to navigate (the union), but the tides are shifting. I don’t think the chief needs to be afraid of them like chiefs have in the past.”

Smith said that, although he is reassured by how Scott has dealt with the union, he could be even bolder.

“We’re cutting him slack because he’s still new,” Smith said. “Maybe there is more to come with more time — but so far he has not stepped up, and we’re hoping that’ll change quickly.”  

Scott and City Hall  

O n a recent Tuesday in room 551 in the Hall of Justice, Scott endured a barrage of questions under oath from POA lawyer Gregg Adam during an arbitration hearing on the department’s contract with the city. It was a rare public encounter between Scott and the union, which has been a fierce critic of Scott since his arrival.

“Why do you think the POA should give up the ability of the members to have their voice heard in the (policy-making) process?” Adam asked, referring to a section in the contract that would limit the union’s ability to draw out the approval of policies related to the DOJ reforms.

“My intent was to expedite the process wherever we could,” Scott said, hunched over in his chair. “Neither the department nor I crafted the proposal — that’s the city’s role as negotiator.”

But Scott said he supported the provision — as, in the end, his own role as chief is implementing the DOJ reforms.

Crew and Subramanian are both members of the so-called “No Justice, No Deal Coalition,” which is advocating for the contract to include language that limits the POA’s influence over the reforms.

Both believe the city can support Scott and his mandate by supporting the provision — called “City Proposal 22,” which limits the time the union can request a so-called “meet-and-confer” sessions to deliberate over policies related to the federal reforms. The union would also have to waive its right to further deliberation if no agreement is reached following the deliberations.

“Right now, there’s the reform side and the anti-reform side, and who is leading the reform side? Bill Scott,” Crew said. “And who is lining up behind that team? Everyone in town — except the POA.”  

That wasn’t always the case. Mayor Mark Farrell initially supported the POA-authored Taser measure. Moreover, for a short period, Farrell shared an advisor, Nate Ballard, with the union, raising questions about how Farrell would steer the city during negotiations.

Since then, however, the city has begun to show more support.

Farrell withdrew his backing of the union’s Taser measure. The Human Resource Department, operating under the mayor’s office, added the proposal that limited the union’s ability to influence DOJ-related policies.  

Moreover, the Board of Supervisors, which will eventually have to approve the agreement, recently introduced a resolution supporting the meet-and-confer proposal in the contract, saying that the SFPD should not get the requested nine to 13 percent pay raise if the language is not included. (The resolution, however, was effectively killed by Supervisors Ahsha Safai and Catherine Stefani.)  

Crew said the reforms and Scott’s apparent raison d’etre to implement them are at a “pivot point.”

If Proposition H, the Taser measure, passes, and the contract includes no language that limits the POA’s influence on the reforms, the POA will be “emboldened” and “the chief will have a much harder job,” he said. “Whoever the chief is.”

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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  1. “Assistant chiefs Tony Chaplin and Hector Sainez, as well as deputy chiefs Mikail Ali and Denise Schmitt, were deputy chiefs under Suhr.” It should be noted that Chaplin and Ali (a Muslim) are African American, Sainez is Hispanic and Schmitt is a lesbian. Coming in from out of town and demoting them might not have been a good move in minority sensitive San Francisco.