SFPD brass takes a full year to respond to reform suggestions reached in consensus with officers — and inserts changes decried as counterproductive.

It happens all the time: A San Francisco police officer stops an individual on the street. But here’s the difference: Whatever goes down, the officer must offer to provide, in writing, his or her “name, star number, contact information and information to file a commendation or complaint that includes SFPD and DPA’s postal and website addresses.” (DPA refers to the Department of Police Accountability, which investigates citizen complaints.)

That, at least, is the scenario enthusiastically endorsed a year ago by the San Francisco Police Department’s working group charged with reforming the SFPD’s anti-bias procedures under General Order 5.17, the Policy Prohibiting Biased Policing. The group, which includes a number of leading civilian reformers as well as police officers, agreed that mandating the offer of information is critical to changing the dynamics between the police and the community, especially young people of color. In July 2017 they sent their recommendations to the SFPD Command Staff for review. “We patted ourselves on the back,” said Julie Traun, director of Court Programs for the Bar Association of San Francisco.

Not so fast, was the response of the Command Staff. Late last month — one full year later — the working group got its red-penciled review. Among the edits: The insertion “upon request” in front of the directive for police to provide their contact information in writing. In other words, officers wouldn’t have to proactively offer to hand it over.

To many in the working group, those two words were just plain wrong. Samara Marion, a lawyer with the Department of Police Accountability, spoke up at the meeting of the working group and again went over why they had made this mandatory.

It’s difficult for anyone, let alone youth, to ask for an officer’s contact information, she said. Moreover, it is highly unlikely that if the youth or person is treated badly, they will feel comfortable asking how to file a complaint.

The group, led by Assistant Chief Toney Chaplin, includes Traun and Marion as well as Human Rights Commission executive director Sheryl Davis and Officers William Ahern, who holds a Ph.D, and Jennifer Durantes.

Moreover, Marion added, another change — inserting an antiquated definition of “biased policing” — was simply wrong, going against “all of the science, all of the academics … from all of the work on police practice that has been done … ”

Perhaps anticipating the working group’s members would be upset, Chaplin invited Michael Connolly, the SFPD’s deputy chief, to the meeting. He has been overseeing all five executive working groups considering the U.S. Department of Justice’s 272 recommendations for reforming the SFPD.

“We can work on things in this room and sometimes they may not pass muster,” said Connolly, referring to an edit by the command staff.

He added that the deputy chief in charge of the working group –– in this case, Chaplin — had the final decision on what was excluded or included. At the same time, he added, the deputy has to consider a policy “that our members can work at, at the darkest of times.”

The surprise revisions from the Command Staff underscore how opaque the reform process can be and how reform can be skirted with a few simple edits.

Working groups can labor over recommendations, collecting research and collaborating with police, only to have it all undone by someone who, as Connolly acknowledged “may have opined without all the other research,” that the working group considered.

In a phone interview last week, Chaplin told Mission Local that the working group will sit down again to review the revisions and decide again whether every person stopped by police should be proactively given written information on filing a complaint or commendation.

What form it will take is still to be determined. As Chaplin explained to members of the working group in late August, not every San Franciscan wants to flaunt a business card from the SFPD in his or her pocket.

Others pointed out that not everyone has to accept the card. Or they can toss it. The important transaction is that police offer the written information to everyone without being asked.

Chaplin said that instead of a business card, the information might be included in form 849B, which police fill out “when a person is moved a substantial distance, detained a significant amount of time, or physically restrained or taken to a police facility and then subsequently released without further law enforcement action.” according to the Department of Justice.

What’s “substantial” or “significant” is unclear. And a form 849B is not filled out with every stop.

The dispute marks the latest setback in anti-bias policing reform that is long overdue. The  Obama Administration’s 2015 report on 21st Century Policing recommended that police departments require “officers to identify themselves by their full name, rank and command (as applicable) and provide that information in writing to individuals they have stopped.”

As the U.S. Justice Department’s report noted, “there are numerous indicators of implicit and institutional bias against minority groups.”

This was reaffirmed in the San Francisco District Attorney’s 2016 Blue Ribbon Panel. And, while the Justice Department’s review of the SFPD did not offer specific guidelines, it concluded that “The SFPD should immediately update Department General Order 5.17.”

Two years later, San Francisco is still waiting.

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Founder/Executive Editor. I’ve been a Mission resident since 1998 and a professor emeritus at Berkeley’s J-school since 2019 when I retired. I got my start in newspapers at the Albuquerque Tribune in the city where I was born and raised. Like many local news outlets, The Tribune no longer exists. I left daily newspapers after working at The New York Times for the business, foreign and city desks. Lucky for all of us, it is still there.

As an old friend once pointed out, local has long been in my bones. My Master’s Project at Columbia, later published in New York Magazine, was on New York City’s experiment in community boards.

Right now I'm trying to figure out how you make that long-held interest in local news sustainable. The answer continues to elude me.

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  1. I’ll bet most people don’t even know the Department of Police Accountability exists, that it’s not comprised of police officials, or what authority it has. And it seems SFPD command staff want to keep it that way. But the truth is that SFPD has little to worry about intrusive oversight by DPA. If the DPA received hundreds of complaints a month, it couldn’t even begin to properly analyze all of them.

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  2. Marion is a longtime “Police Watchdog/ Attackdog” since her time with Citizens complaints. The requirement to mandatorily give the website and postal address (really?) is a “gotcha” sustainable complaint when it isn’t done. Imagine a suspect puts both officers in the hospital or worse and gets arrested. The officers don’t give him the info and boom- there’s a sustained complaint. A war of words over this? Really? That was their achievement in this panel of experts?

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