Illustration by Molly Oleson

In 2011, the San Francisco Police Department belatedly entered 1994, when officers and higher-ups finally received work e-mail. And there was much rejoicing.

In 2018, documents obtained by Mission Local reveal the SFPD has advanced to the point that it’s using Track Changes on Microsoft Word. And yet, making edits on an four-page biased-policing policy paper submitted by police reform experts working in concert with members of the department required an entire year. You read that right.

Perhaps the SFPD’s hammers and chisels damaged their computer monitors.

Mission Local’s Lydia Chavez wrote about this last week, but it’s worth another look. The issue of police reform becomes a hot, hit-the-streets topic every time blood runs on the pavement. But it’s issues like the yearlong edits on a collaborative reform proposal that may be even more illustrative of why real reform remains so elusive.

And, in fact, illusory.

That’s because, in addition to taking a full year to edit the four-page document — which was produced not by pot-and-pan-thumping street activists but sober-minded lawyer types working alongside police officials with a deep expertise in the subject matter — the edits that came back were not only nonsensical, but antithetical to intuitive notions of reform.

To wit, the expert panel made the suggestion that, after making a stop, officers proactively hand over a card stating their name, star number, contact information and instructions on how to file either a commendation or complaint. The rationale here is easy to understand: Rather than put the onus on a potentially intimidated subject to demand the ID of the uniformed officer with the badge and gun detaining him or her, this pressure could be alleviated with the simplicity of handing over a business card.

Simple, right? Wrong. Using the Microsoft Track Changes technology, SFPD brass inserted “Upon request” into this dictum, thereby undermining it completely.

And why? Because business cards ain’t cheap.

“I don’t think it’s reasonable or practical to require officers to give out business cards in every single ped or traffic stop,” commented Sgt. Gary Buckner on the document. “Most of the time, citizens do not want the business card. If we are required to give it out and the person does not want one, then what? What about the costs?”

Good Lord. Where to begin?

“Most of the time, citizens do not want the business card. If we are required to give it out and the person does not want one, then what? What about the costs?”

Well, first of all, the Department of Justice in 2016 chided the SFPD for not collecting pedestrian stop data, handicapping efforts to detect biased policing. Meanwhile, the SFPD in 2017 reported that it made 93,459 traffic stops. So, even if the cops stop just as many pedestrians as drivers — and they all but certainly don’t — and even if the department kicks down the princely sum of 10 cents per business card, we’re talking about a $19,000-a-year issue here.

The SFPD’s annual budget now sits at just over $600 million. It spends $5.5 million on “materials and supplies,” which would presumably include business cards.

How to put this: It’ll be okay.

As for the other element of Buckner’s lament, cops hand people things all the time that they do not want — things that are far more unwelcome than a business card. Truly, this does not seem to be a challenging dilemma: Citizens will politely decline the card or pocket it — and, likely, chuck it. If enough citizens chuck enough police officers’ cards into enough restaurant win-a-free-lunch buckets, then this might even be a revenue-positive proposition for the cops.  

It’s a problem when inane suggestions like those above can derail the hard work put in during long hours of a collaborative process. What’s worse is: This is how the SFPD wants this process to work. Or not work.

Built into the process of how policies painstakingly crafted by experts and police officials work their way into adoption as Departmental General Orders are a series of stumbling blocks in which an SFPD higher-up can, more or less unilaterally, implode the process. These SFPD gatekeepers — demonstrably — may not wholly understand the policies they’re undermining and may not even have done much in the way of homework; Deputy Chief Michael Connolly last week admitted that collaboratively crafted policy can be overruled by a police official “who may have opined without all the other research.”

And don’t forget: Those arbitrary rulings come months if not years after the policies are submitted. The SFPD, despite recent advances into the realm of Track Changes, is still operating with Pony Express turnaround times. The world, however, continues to move at a modern pace. The SFPD continues to make scores of stops each day.

A process in which community experts are invited to spend long hours hammering out thoughtful policies only for their suggestions to molder in a series of inboxes before some SFPD higher-up with a questionable command of the material randomly swipes left on the whole endeavor is hard to qualify as “reform-minded.” Rather, this seems to be an excellent method of ensuring stagnation and the status-quo.

This seems to be something more akin to the veneer of community participation than actual community participation. This seems to be something more akin to the veneer of reform rather than actual reform.

That’s pretty insidious. That’s the sort of thing that can turn allies into skeptics, turn hope into skepticism, and drown even the most ardent advocate in vats of cynicism — by design.

What about the costs, indeed.  

The executive working group will meet again to discuss the policy on Monday, Sept. 24, at 10 a.m. at SFPD headquarters: 1251 3rd St., Room 1025.  

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Joe, why isn’t the Police Commission making the final decisions on these things? Why doesn’t the Mayor exercise more control through the appointed Chief? It seems like a relative no-brainer for the overseers of the SFPD to champion the implementation of the Justice Department’s recommendations.

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  2. The fact that a last minute exemption for SFPD and SFSD was slipped in on the legislation David Campos sponsored (Article 36B) after the Steinle slaying is telling. Campos drafted the ordinance to directly address how SFPD and SFSD stored firearms while off duty, but he couldn’t get it through until the exemption was added.

    Because of that exemption, SFPD and SFSD are the only municipal law enforcement agencies in CA that are not legally culpable for leaving firearms unsecured in the personal vehicles when off duty. The state law Jerry Hill sponsored after the slaying defers to local ordinances, which in this case provides the exemption.

    Oakland did it right after the Steinle slaying, but not SF. SF was getting good press about doing it right – – but when the law came out, nobody noticed that SFPD and SFSD were exempt.

    I honestly don’t even know if Campos realized it. I feel confident Mr. Eskenazi never realized it. From interviews, neither does Jerry Hill. Vivian Ho and Michael Barba missed it. Nobody knew.

    That’s why Officer Cabuntala got off “Scott” free. Check it out for yourself.

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  3. I signed up a few months back for Mission Station’s email newsletter. On Sept 10, they sent me an email with links for Jan & Feb 2018 newsletters.

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