Chief Bill Scott and the police union are both bleeding from self-inflicted wounds

Chief Bill Scott and the city's bellicose police union don't have much in common — except self-inflicted setbacks. Photo of Scott by Nikka Singh.

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.”

Savage. At least they didn’t wager on the Cavs.

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.

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13 Comments

  1. GREG SMITH

    Looking for Chiefs outside the SFPD hasn’t exactly worked out. Gains, Gascon and Godown all left quickly. Scott has lost credibility with the officers and likely the next Mayor. Chances are he won’t survive the next less than perfect OIS. Hopefully if he leaves or is ousted, we won’t run back to “Rapid LAPD” again. “The definition of insanity is …”

  2. This might be the best article I’ve ever read on Mission Local. Well done sir.

  3. Another huge Joe Eskenazi fan here. Thank you for leading with three paragraphs that were a pure joy to read, followed by solid reporting of the insider variety.

  4. Dan Gray

    Scott is a self serving politico. He’ll be gone soon. The police commission has not served San Francisco well. They selected Scott. Why?
    Gascon was/is a self serving politico, though with much higher ability,ambition, and craftiness. He was selected by the police commission. He used them to get his foot in the door of San Francisco/State politics. Both from L.A. and both had no “iron in the fire” for San Francisco. If your living here you should expect they both would…….not even a paper clip.

    The police commission was ‘ nowhere to be found or heard from ‘ when Mario Woods was killed. Why? They voted “no” on tasers after a two day presentation that was so rational that only fools would vote it away. Had they not done so Mario Woods would not have been shot. He would have been tased.

    Watch a couple of police commission meetings and you decide. They are supposed to be looking out for the best interests of the people of San Francisco. Not even close…….The citizens and the police are subject to the decisions they make. They make poor decisions.

    • Joe Eskenazi Post author

      Sir or madam —

      Lots of interesting thoughts here, but I think I should push back on several:

      A. People are quick to say that George Gascon was hoping to use the SFPD as a stepping stone. It really doesn’t make sense if you think about it more. Gavin Newsom suprised everyone by appointing him DA, which also entailed a *huge* pay cut. What makes more sense is that Gascon sensed that the mayor that brought him in, Newsom, was on the outs, and the new guy, Ed Lee, was not a fan (Lee was a big Suhr backer). Taking the DA job made sense.

      B. Police use-of-force experts and Taser experts have used Mario Woods as a signature example of a case in which a Taser could well *not* have worked. He was wearing multiple layers of clothing and moving around erratically. It was no sure thing. The efficacy of Tasers is not something on which there is unanimous consensus. And, in this city, it is now fair to question if there’s even a political consensus for it.

      Best,

      JE

      • GREG SMITH

        Joe .., I agree with you that Mario Woods probably – I say again – probably, wouldn’t have been stopped by a Taser.. I read the DA’s report and when I saw that the video forensics firm said he was eight feet from officer August, I was convinced the cop had no other reasonable choice. A better example of a life that might have been saved by Taser goes back to Idris Stendly (sp?) in the Metronome Theater. The Chron’s excellent graphic showed an almost ideal opportunity after “crisis intervention,” Mace and night sticks failed.

        The problem with the commission is too many progressives and especially progressive lawyers who want to make the world perfect. “Perfect is the enemy of good enough.” Attributed to Admiral Gorshikov, father of the modern Soviet Navy. Oh..I hope our local politicos have a happy Mario Woods Day on July 22.

      • Dan Gray

        Newsom appointing Gascon as a last minute “ aha moment “? I don’t believe that for one second. Gascon got his foot in the door through the police commission and had his sights way further down the line from the start. Blue Ribbon Panel? The “ presentation “ was a well orchestrated, media savvy insult to the average brain. The “ organization “ that was assigned the task of getting it all together is “agenda driven”. Look into that fact. They paraded out seven lawyers who ( for sure had never done an investigation of police procedure ) and spit out exactly what Gascon had wanted.

        What percentage of large police departments in this country say no to tasers? Why would a rational tool be denied? To make the Mario Woods case “ not a taser case “ is rather naive. The cops had all the time and distance they could ask for. You don’t have a taser……you can’t employ it.

        Shall I go on? They recently eliminated a tool that had been used for decades. There is no history in San Francisco that this tool has ever caused injury or death. The carotid restraint. Replaced it with nothing instead. The uninformed mistakingly identify this as “ a choke hold “.

        They voted it out and had no data to support such a vote other than public misperception. I stand by my assertion that The San Francisco Police Commission has not served the city well at all.

        All one has to do is watch them conduct a meeting.

        • Joe Eskenazi Post author

          You can not believe it, but that’s what all the principals say, that’s what all the people involved say, and that’s what fits in with Newsom’s habits and M.O.

          I believe only the SFPD and Boston haven’t adopted Tasers, but you are begging the question in calling Tasers “a rational tool.” The research questioning their efficacy is legion and valid. This is not a akin to a debate over evolution or something of that ilk. To question Tasers’ effectiveness is a more than valid position. Regarding Woods, I don’t know if you’ve ever interviewed several of the top Taser experts in the nation, as I have. Woods was, independently, mentioned by more than one as the sort of case in which a Taser might not work. Separate and apart from the fact they simply don’t function properly 1/3 to 1/2 of the time the trigger is pulled, his thin frame, puffy jacket, and erratic movements would have made it a difficult proposition.

          All of these points, however, are deeply ancillary to the major thrust of my column. And one can concede the Police Commission is suboptimal and hardly invalidate my other points.

          Best,

          JE

          • GREG SMITH

            Joe – At the risk of repeating myself, the anti Taser people such as commissioner DeJesus insist that any less lethal method of overcoming resistance be perfect. It’s a lawyer’s disease. We as a society have decided that we’ll no longer limit police candidates to big man, preferably of Irish heritage. That means women and ethnic groups of relatively small stature. This is good. However, in a one-on-one fight with a guy bigger, stronger and meaner than you,courage and training will only carry a person so far. Given the shift in the demographics of who gets to be a cop, chipping away at less lethal options such as Tasers or the Carotid hold probably isn’t a good idea.

            Regards,

            Greg

          • Dan Gray

            I am not begging the question. Tasers are standard across the country for good reason. Death by gun or get tased.

            Tasers don’t function properly between 33 and 50 percent of the time the trigger is pulled? You write stuff like that and expect people to believe that is a fact ?

            You interviewed the “ top “ taser people and you have the inside track of San Francisco politics including Newsom’s M.O. and habits. ???

            If your objective in writing is to make a name for yourself …you will succeed.

          • Joe Eskenazi Post author

            Dan —

            You continue to insist that your arguments, which have merit, are objective fact. Yes, they do have merit. They are not objective fact.
            Regarding Tasers’ failure rate, if you don’t believe me, try the Los Angeles Times (http://www.latimes.com/local/crime/la-me-lapd-tasers-20160401-story.html), reporting the numbers direct from the LAPD.
            I’m not sure where you’re going with regard to the rest of your letter. Yes, I have interviewed a bevy of Taser experts, as one does when spending months covering Tasers. And, yes, I’ve covered San Francisco politics for parts of 20 years, so I’ve talked to some people here, too. I expect people to weigh that fact when they choose to gauge the validity of my reporting.

            Best,

            JE

  5. GREG SMITH

    Dan – This conversation is important and it might be a good idea to keep personal insults out of it. Assuming the 33-50% failure rate is correct, I still think our cops ought to have them. The alternatives are shootings and/or cops being over powered and greatly injured Given that we have a high proportion of disruptive mentally ill people on the streets and possibly a hidden epidemic of Meth use, it just doesn’t make sense that we were one of the last big cities to adopt them.

  6. Dan Gray

    Joe,
    I read the link you provided.” Effectiveness percentage of taser use” and “ taser trigger failure rate”, are two entirely different subjects. “ simply don’t function properly 33 to 50 percent of the time” is what you stated is the expert testimony is on the taser.
    That is straight up misleading.

    The effective outcome of a taser discharge and the efficient discharge of the taser are two separate subjects. It may not be effective, but it does function as designed. Bean bag guns perform as designed, but the expected outcome may in fact not be effective.

    You equated “ effectiveness” with “ trigger failure”. The article you directed me to read never stated a 33 to 50 percent “ does not function properly” rate. It used those percentages for effectiveness.

    Okay. Thanks for the opportunity to share Joe.

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