Despite concerns that the San Francisco Police Department’s reform process would atrophy following the sudden withdrawal of the U.S. Department of Justice, the police department’s new overseer — the California Department of Justice — appears to have stepped into its new role with poise. 

The Cal DOJ in December found the SFPD to be “not in substantial compliance” with several recommendations initially made by the U.S. Justice Department and later modified by the Cal DOJ and the Chicago-based risk-management consulting firm Hillard Heintze.

Many of the areas in which the SFPD was found wanting are substantive. They concern the prohibition of a dangerous chokehold once used by SFPD officers; the SFPD’s communication and reporting systems around officer-involved shootings; and informing the public about how to report officer misconduct.

The review was summarized in a Dec. 28 letter from the Cal DOJ to Chief Bill Scott. It found the department to be out of compliance with six of the 13 recommendations mentioned in the letter. The 2016 federal review of the department made 272 total recommendations in the wake of several controversial police shootings and a scandal in which officers exchanged racist, homophobic, and sexist text messages. More than two years later, the police department is still working to meet the recommendations.

The Cal DOJ noted that it could not sign off on several key areas because it has been presented with little or no proof that the SFPD is reviewing and critiquing itself.

“… because several of the packages that were submitted to us do not currently contain a plan or any information concerning review loops or audits, the Cal DOJ is unable to designate some of the recommendations as being substantially compliant,” wrote Nancy A. Beninati, the supervising deputy attorney general.

The letter adds, however: “Although we are continuing to work out some kinks in this review process, your team has assured us that they are working toward streamlining the package review process … ”

At a Police Commission meeting Jan. 9, Commissioner Petra DeJesus mentioned the DOJ letter, asking whose responsibility it was to make the corrections. Scott said the department’s professional standards unit was working on it and that he was happy to receive the letter. He said it was a “better process, so we are in a better place now.”

David Stevenson, the SFPD’s director of strategic communications, said in an email that addressing the recommendations is an ongoing process.

“Some of the original recommendations did not specify a review loop and/or audit. Work on the recommendations continued as compliance measures were developed over the course of this collaboration,” Stevenson wrote. “As a result, we look forward to the addressing the review requirements as we continue implementation of the recommendations.”

John Crew, a former ACLU attorney and police practices expert, said these are important compliance measures requiring “institutional commitment.” And the SFPD’s lack of documentation did not surprise him, considering the department’s history of being “accountability avoidant.”

“You can say you do use-of-force reports,” Crew continued. “But if you don’t make sure they’re being done, it’s a meaningless requirement.”  

For example, the recommendation that the SFPD “immediately prohibit the carotid restraint” — a chokehold that renders people unconscious and is considered dangerous — was found to be “not in substantial compliance,” because the SFPD could not provide “evidence of supportive and remedial action if deficiencies are found.”

Moreover, the department was found to be out of compliance with a recommendation that the “SFPD should implement immediately a public education campaign on the policies and procedures for reporting misconduct as centered on the anti-bias and the initiatives underway.”

The SFPD maintained it has accomplished this through posting complaint information on its website, posting through social media, and permitting station captains to engage in outreach at the district level “as they see fit.”

But the DOJ found this insufficient because “the media used to conduct this public-education campaign does not reach the entire community, only those members who have access to computers, cell phones, and electronic communication.”

Furthermore, the department only provided proof that the campaign was being carried out in English. And the letter states there is “no information provided with respect to the work that the Captains are doing in the district stations as part of this objective.”

Cal DOJ as oversight body

The late Julius Turman, who was Police Commission president when the U.S. Department of Justice ended its involvement with the SFPD’s reform initiative, was not in favor of the Cal DOJ picking up the job.

“Despite my objections — and, when I was not present, despite Commissioner (Thomas) Mazzucco’s objections — this was the party selected out of other outside agencies to do this work,” said Turman during a Police Commission meeting last February. “From the beginning, and I say now, the California Department of Justice is not the proper party to have this responsibility, because they don’t have any experience with collaborative reform.” 

Crew was mildly reassured by the letter, calling it “a relatively early find, but a good find.” But for the California DOJ really show its commitment, “there needs the possibility of a stick” — which, Crew said, would mean the Cal DOJ taking the city to court if the SFPD does not comply.

“You have to actually follow through on this,” he said. “The question now is: what is the DOJ going to do if the SFPD doesn’t follow through? And how long will they give them if they don’t?”