The union may find itself relegated to a political bit player. The chief may find himself out of a job. And the SFPD may continue to run on autopilot.
The Sixth and Bryant headquarters of the San Francisco Police Officers Association is well-lit and airy, with high ceilings and parquet floors. It is every bit as sleek and elegant as the adjacent Hall of Justice is dumpy and decrepit. It’s a fitting citadel for a union flush with cash; an outfit that — until recently — weighed in significantly on who advanced in the San Francisco Police Department, and could demand fealty from elected officials.
It’s still a hell of an office, but those days are done, at least for now. The police union has poured vast quantities of its members’ money into failed causes of late, with each mounting loss being more humiliating than the last. Most recently, in this month’s election, the POA’s Taser measure, Prop. H, not only lost, but lost by a 60-40 split — and saw the police union’s nearly half-million dollar campaign routed by, of all organizations, the city’s Democratic Socialists.
The POA remains defiant, if diminished. If it had a mantra to carve into these walls to loom over the yellowing photos of former patrolmen and Officer Isaac Espinoza’s framed uniform, it could do worse than the dying words of Captain Ahab: To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell’s heart, I stab at thee; For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.
This is more or less the M.O. of the POA right now. Like Ahab, it has allowed itself to become consumed by enmity and has been pulled beneath the waves while lashed in a death struggle with its opponent. And yet, the POA’s bête noire, outsider Chief Bill Scott, has problems of his own. And, like those of the POA, they’re largely self-inflicted.
When he was vetted by the Police Commission for this job, Scott, a 27-year man at the Los Angeles Police Department, was purportedly asked if he would apply for the top spot thereafter Chief Charlie Beck inevitably retired. He apparently told this city’s powers-that-be that he would not.
Granted, the political situation in San Francisco has changed a lot in Scott’s year and a half atop the department. Mayor Ed Lee, who installed Scott, died in December. Scott found himself answering to a second mayor, then a third, and, next month or so, a potential fourth.
Scott may well have been 100 percent honest in 2017 when he reportedly pledged he wasn’t interested in heading back to L.A. But, in 2018, he demonstrably was. Scott applied for the job. He progressed to the last round, as one of three final candidates. And he didn’t get it, forcing him to slink back to San Francisco with, as even his firmest supporters put it, “some trust to earn back.”
Others are less charitable. “He’s ruined no matter what,” says one veteran cop. “Because he’s second-best for L.A. We’re getting the L.A. reject. And even though he’s staying, it showed he was using us as a stepping stone.”
Others are less charitable still: “The thing the politicians and people who support Scott should consider is that the officers now have a legitimate reason to not follow him,” says a longtime SFPD higher-up. “He has proven them right and given them a reason to not trust him. And when he didn’t answer the questions about the LAPD and his applying for the job — look back at all the things he’s said about being transparent. It’s hypocritical.”
And others are simply pragmatic: “Scott is an injured chief at this point. I don’t know if he can recover,” says another longtime department leader.
Could it cost him his job? “There’s a much greater likelihood of that happening now than a month ago, before his participation in the LAPD hiring process was made public,” continues the veteran cop. Scott’s dalliance with Los Angeles was “a huge blunder, and one the next mayor has to address.”
Prop. H was supposed to win. The measure would have undermined both the chief and the Police Commission with regard to setting Taser policy — but voters weren’t supposed to care about that. The Police Commission, in fact, has granted the officers their decade-long wish to have Tasers, but has framed policy less permissive than the ballot measure penned by the union. But, again, voters were supposed to not care, they were merely supposed to say “getting Tased is better than getting shot; I like Tasers.”
But voters cared. The POA and its allies outspent the Prop. H foes by a 5-to-1 margin, only to lose at the polls by a 3-to-2 margin. Prior to the vote, SFPD higher-ups were saying things to me like: “This will be a big wake-up call for the politicians and the Police Commission,” and “Now they’ll have to listen to the POA a little bit,” and “Prop. H is going to be a sign that we do understand the public.”
Even though it wasn’t true, the POA was happy to frame Proposition H as a referendum on Tasers. Considering the results at the polls, are they still willing to make that claim? Prior to this ignominious defeat, no serious person would have considered actually putting a real referendum on Tasers onto the ballot. But now someone might.
So, that’s a kick in the teeth. An expensive kick in the teeth. But it’s not the first. The POA spent heavily to defend the cops caught up in the Textgate scandal, even though it wasn’t strictly obligated to do so. It has carried on legal trench warfare for years regarding the department’s use-of-force policies that it likely won’t win. The union developed a personal vendetta against probable next mayor London Breed and put its money behind no-hope candidate Angela Alioto.
And it gets worse: When the United States Supreme Court soon hands down its decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case, it will all but certainly deal a crippling blow to public-sector unions across the realm. Employees will be entitled to benefit from unions’ collective bargaining without being mandated to contribute all or part of their dues. With the POA’s recent fiscal performance, it remains to be seen how many SFPD officers will opt to stop paying up.
And yet, despite all the bad decisions and the immolation of the union’s social and political capital, it can remain a powerful force. Not by calling the shots, as it used to, but by keeping anyone else from doing so.
In this state, unions can draw out negotiations with municipalities for up to a year, at which time the city’s last and best offer is usually automatically imposed. But not in this city. Here, thanks to a 1990s ballot measure, the issue goes to an arbitrator — who is answerable to nobody.
The threat to do this, on literally every issue, keeps the POA viable. It can squander money and goodwill and allies. But that means little in, say, a closed-door negotiation about body cameras, with arbitration as a backdrop — as is occurring at the next Police Commission meeting.
In this way, the union can carry on indefinitely. Scott cannot. Even before his L.A. dalliance, his erstwhile allies — or, if allies is too strong a word, cops who’d given him the benefit of the doubt — began to lose confidence. As Mission Local wrote in May, Scott raised eyebrows by keeping former chief Greg Suhr’s command staff intact, and then rendering the department even more top-heavy by kicking a few extra aging cops upstairs.
That’s a marked contrast to what former chief George Gascón — a fellow LAPD lifer — did, elevating younger, hungrier cops like David Lazar and Greg McEachern onto the command staff. These were, at the time, promising younger officers — and far off enough from retirement that they had to work hard (and work hard for the chief who promoted them).
Scott hasn’t done this. Instead, many complain within the department, he’s essentially delegated day-to-day operations to assistant chief Hector Sainez, who was there when he got here.
“If you say you want to change anything, why keep everybody from the old guard? If Suhr’s regime was messed up, why didn’t you touch it?” asks a department lifer. “Even LeBron can’t win with a crappy team.”
It remains to be seen what team Scott — and LeBron — find themselves on next.
It remains to be seen how effectively Scott and his command staff can disseminate the Department of Justice-generated reform procedures down to the average cop on the beat. It remains to be seen if these cops are willing to take Scott seriously anymore or just wait him out. And it remains to be seen just how disruptive —For hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee — the POA is willing to be.
And, regardless of it all, crime and mayhem carry on, even if the SFPD doesn’t.