The sight of suspects cuffed and seated on the pavement with San Francisco police officers hovering above is, if not ubiquitous, not at all uncommon in the Mission. Chief Bill Scott would like to change that.
“Seating any handcuffed or un-handcuffed suspect on the ground or sidewalk during an encounter should be avoided,” reads the draft department bulletin Scott recently disseminated. Rather than sitting subjects down on the pavement, as officers have been trained to do, this should “be done only as a last resort and only when necessary.” While making allowances for “exceptional circumstances,” Scott writes that, when “sufficient help is on the scene,” subjects should be seated in police vehicles. Officers who do sit subjects down on the pavement will be required to document this in an incident report.
This directive triggered a predictable response from the Police Officers Association — which is not thrilled. On Dec. 7, its attorney, Greg Adam, sent a letter to the chief stating that this policy “is a major break with our past practices and inconsistent in how officers have been trained. It affects training and, in the POA’s opinion, it affects officer safety.”
As the POA is wont to do about nearly every detail of police procedure, it asked for a meet-and-confer session before the policy goes into effect. The union says its request for a meeting has been granted.
Scott has downplayed any notion this move would be a “major break,” telling KTVU-TV that this is “basically about treating people with respect.” In a statement sent to Mission Local, the department described the policy as “still in draft form” and “aligned with 21st-century policing.”
“There is no language in this draft policy that says ‘You shall not,’” the statement continues. “Instead, it states that if an officer must place somebody on the ground, he or she should be able to explain their actions. This is the accountability that the public wants and expects from us.”
Scott has said that there was no single precipitating incident for this policy proposal.
In fact, the number of complaints made against San Francisco police officers has dropped, precipitously, for the better part of a decade. In 2007, 1,126 complaints were filed and, by 2009, that tally hit 1,199. By 2015 the complaint total was down to 796 and in 2017 only 601 complaints were filed, a 47 percent reduction since ’07. With these stats in mind, veteran officers contacted by Mission Local were confused by this policy, and wondered about Scott’s motivation.
It warrants mentioning that, in this timeframe, the SFPD’s arrest rate dropped precipitously, too. This was also noted by critics of Scott’s approach.
“Every day, I grumble about the obstructionism of the POA, but, this time, Scott did something they can take advantage of,” bemoaned a longtime SFPD higher-up. “Cops right now don’t want to do their jobs to begin with; there is, clearly, a de-policing effect taking place. This is one more example of how to discourage them.”
Another veteran officer adds, “When you ask someone to sit on the ground with their feet in front of them, it takes more time for them to get up, run, or fight. Not putting people on the ground creates a whole new reality of controlling scenes — and what you’re going to have is officers losing control. That includes violence that wouldn’t have otherwise happened, resisting arrest, and losing prisoners.”
Putting a subject in a car, as Scott’s dictum suggests, could have unintended consequences, continues the longtime officer: “Then people assume they’re going to jail. That’s even more disrespectful.”
These views, however, are not universal. Timothy T. Williams, Jr. is a police-procedure and use-of-force expert; he broke in with the Los Angeles Police Department in 1974 and served nearly 30 years there, working alongside Bill Scott, who remains his acquaintance. “I have always had a problem with having individuals sit on the ground,” he says. “I think it’s a respect thing and there’s no need for that.”
When he was a young cop in the 1970s, “we never did that. Now it’s evolved over the years that people do it. Some officers say it’s for officer safety. Some say it’s a way to control people. I have never supported it.” Doing away with this practice, Williams says, “would go a long way toward helping de-escalation in the community. And the community would be receptive to this. But not law enforcement. That’s really too bad. I support what the chief is doing.”
Seth Stoughton, a law professor at the University of South Carolina and a former police officer, says he’s searched for the specific statutes and court cases that clearly allow cops to order detainees to sit down — and he can’t find any. “Now, I think it’s highly likely that the courts will allow officers to order people to sit down when officers can articulate why that is a reasonable command under the circumstances,” he says. “But I’m skeptical that the courts will grant officers carte blanche to do so without some specific, articulatable justification.”
That sounds about right to Jim Chanin, a civil rights attorney who has, by his own count, sued local police departments hundreds of times. Making a person sit, in public, to be leered at by passers-by “should always be avoided if possible,” Chanin says. “I get where the chief is coming from.”
Chanin notes that this policy shouldn’t apply when dealing with dangerous situations — or disabled and/or elderly subjects who may want to sit down.
And yet Michael Leonesio, a retired Oakland cop turned use-of-force consultant, argued that having subjects sit during detentions and arrests is not inherently disrespectful.
“You are not going to be doing this during consensual contacts. You cannot do that. The only times you could do this are when someone is already legally detained or arrested. And, then, it’s perfectly appropriate — within common sense,” he says. “You can’t make someone sit down in a dangerous situation [like] right near a bus. There are cases in places where it gets hot where subjects have gotten second-degree burns on the pavement. And you shouldn’t do this in the pouring rain or where it’s muddy. Where I am now in Tennessee, there are no sidewalks. Are you going to have someone sit in a ditch? Of course not.”
Leonesio argues, “This is not demeaning. It’s controlling. … What this tactic is used for is to try to control movement. You want them to sit down when you’re maybe doing some computer work and you cannot have 100 percent eyes on them. This is a minor inconvenience for both officer safety and subject safety.”
But could this practice be abused? “Certainly it could,” Leonesio admits. “But if that’s what Chief Scott is trying to address, that’s a discipline issue and a training issue. This move doesn’t seem to solve any particular problem other than that he thinks the practice is demeaning.”
Leonesio is unaware of any police departments other than San Francisco that have either adopted or are contemplating such a policy.
Chris Magnus, the police chief in Tucson and the former Richmond chief — where he earned the moniker “The Black Lives Matter cop” — says his officers do sit detainees and arrestees down. But not cavalierly.
“There is no flat-out prohibition against putting people on the ground, but I do expect officers to use good judgment,” he says.
“We try to be cognizant, especially in the summer, of how we do that. And there are many circumstances where, if we can, we can seat them in a car or just continue having a conversation with someone without securing them. But there are certainly times where we do put people on the ground. It all depends on the circumstances and the level of cooperation the officer is getting.”