A new day for collaborative reform between civilians and the San Francisco Police Department — or the same-old, same-old?

That was the question Monday afternoon as the SFPD convened its first meeting since October to refine its anti-bias policy. A well-crafted policy will help ensure police treat everyone equally under the law. At present, that’s not happening.

The U.S. Department of Justice made hundreds of recommendations in 2016 on how the SFPD can restore its trust with community members. But civilians who have taken part in that reform process have long complained that their input is thrown into a black hole.

It’s been a theme.

As the anti-bias working group kicked off again Monday at Police Headquarters — this time with a new conductor, Commander Teresa Ewins — those frustrations were on full display.

Demarris Evans, a deputy public defender, has been attending these meetings for a while. It hasn’t been an enlightening experience. She and fellow attendees come in with the hope that “they’re doing something collaborative, only to find out it’s not as collaborative as they thought.”

Ewins made the police department’s position clear: “Your input is important, but we still write the policy.”

Or, they don’t write it. Much discussion over the years, for example, has focused on whether officers are required to give citizens they stop business cards and information on how to file a citizen complaint.

(This was a recommendation by President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing to improve police departments’ relationships with communities. It was adopted in New York City last year.)

The SFPD, citing the costs of business cards, snubbed that suggestion and changed the anti-bias policy in October without further input from civilian stakeholders — wonks who have long been involved in the process, like Julie Traun of the San Francisco Bar Association.

Truan said she and others were previously working with this anti-bias policy recommendation “from the very beginning,” meeting with experts, observing training, and submitting carefully worded suggestions. “That group reached unanimity [on the policy] after having done all that kind of research that you would expect the department and working group to do together,” she said.   

Then the policy went into “concurrence” in July 2017 — when department brass pours over it and unilaterally decides what stays and what goes. The SFPD subsequently gutted this six-page policy and, to boot, took until September, 2018, to do it.

Everyone was still talking about this on Monday. The SFPD had modified its position but failed to provide any notes on how it conducted this process, leaving highly involved stakeholders feeling left out of the process.

“That’s part of the frustration,” said Samara Marion, the director of policy with the Department of Police Accountability. All of those recommendations and work she and others had made “appeared to be put aside, or not considered, or we were never informed who considered those ideas.”

In light of this, Traun added, “Some of us wondered whether we wanted to participate at all.”

Ewins said that both the Police Commission and the California Department of Justice, via the SFPD submissions, have “seen your recommendations; they’ve seen the recommendations you provided.”

Not so, said both Police Commissioner Cindy Elias and Nancy Beninati of the California Department of Justice.   

Elias, who has been involved in the working group, said the document that working group members submitted to the SFPD’s the command staff was altered before being forwarded along to the state DOJ without further discussion with stakeholders.

Beninati, a supervising Deputy Attorney General, said that her office received a draft of the anti-bias policy in July of last year, only after the policy was edited by the police command staff. Absent, she said, were the notes and recommendations of community stakeholders, and how the police arrived at the draft.

“We are unaware as to what information was provided by the working group, vs. any other group for that matter,” she said.

Elias did assure the group that she had confidence Ewins would bring the working group in a positive direction.

The group will be meeting every second Monday of the month. Time will tell.