After some 30 months, the San Francisco Police Department has completed a mere 4 percent of the recommendations — 11 of 272 — the U.S. Department of Justice handed down in 2016, according to a recently released report.  

That amounts to finishing one recommendation every 82 days.

“It’s an unacceptable percentage,” said Anand Subramanian, the managing director of PolicyLink, a research institute that focuses on police accountability and other equity issues. “They’ve had more than two and-a-half years for compliance with those recommendations.”

Although the SFPD’s agreement with two third-party reviewers gives the department until May 2020 to complete the other 261 reforms, it’s unlikely that will happen.

“There are so many layers, how do you get through them all?” said Barbara Attard, a police accountability consultant. “I think it’s going to be hard to finish these reforms unless they group them together in ways that make sense.”

The U.S. Department of Justice, which has since been supplanted by the California Department of Justice as the SFPD’s oversight body, made reform recommendations in response to a succession of scandals and controversial police shootings that rocked the department and resulted in protests. Five months before the report came out, Chief Greg Suhr abruptly resigned after an SFPD officer shot Jessica Williams in Bayview while she was driving a stolen car.

The 2016 DOJ recommendations cover anti-bias measures, changes to how police use force, and how the SFPD interacts with community members. The reform effort kicked off following the review’s completion in October 2016.

Part of the reason for the delay stems from U.S. Justice Department’s September 2017 withdrawal as an overseer, prompting to the state Justice Department to step in five months later as a third-party reviewer at the city’s request. By the time the state took over, Police Chief Bill Scott said his department had begun work on roughly half the recommendations.

To be sure, the department has been improving in some areas. Its use of force is down 14 percent (yet African American men are still on the receiving end 35 percent of that force while comprising less than five percent of the city’s population).

Every officer now uses body cameras, although they are not always turned on. (Before police fatally shot an unarmed carjacking suspect in December 2017, the officer who ultimately shot them man neglected to fully activate his camera.)

But a closer look at the report shows that major obstacles lie ahead, especially the one remaining year the department has to complete 96 percent, or 261, of the 272 recommendations, each of which must be signed off by both the Hillard Heintze consulting firm and the California Department of Justice.

Nonetheless, the mayor was happy with the report.

“SFPD has made significant progress towards changing policies and culture that will ultimately lead to greater trust between law enforcement and our diverse communities,” said Mayor London Breed in a statement upon the report’s May 16 release.

Subramanian — who also served as the director of the San Francisco Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement, whose probe alleged widespread bias throughout the department — said the process currently in place is “completely frustrating and predictable based on the format of collaborative reform, where’s there is no authority to enforce and demand compliance.”

The state DOJ’s limited authority was apparent in the report: “There has been slow progress in removing impediments that have prevented Cal DOJ from obtaining full access to all of the SFPD systems,” wrote Supervising Deputy Attorney General Nancy Beninati.

She noted that, while Chief Scott and others have been highly cooperative, “this sentiment is not universal within SFPD and the Chief’s enthusiasm and commitment to this process have not been fully adopted within all ranks.”  

Moreover, Hillard Heintze, the law enforcement consulting firm that penned the bulk of the report, reaffirmed what community members participating in the process have been saying since the beginning: the process is hardly “collaborative.”

“External partners have reported improvement in their interactions with the SFPD but indicate that these interactions do not result in specific outcomes or protocols,” the report states. “Some partners perceive that the collaborative approach recommended in the assessment report has not been fully embraced.”

These “external partners,” wonky lawyer-types, reiterated this complaint at a recent meeting, arguing that their input went to a black hole before re-emerging as a policy submitted to the state Justice Department.

“It feels like the facade of community involvement,” said Attard, the accountability consultant who was also a policy analyst with the city’s Department of Police Accountability. She added that working with the SFPD has been a “frustrating exercise.”  

The consulting firm and the state DOJ delivered the report upon the department’s completion of the so-called “first phase” of the three-phase process. Beninati described the first phase as the completion of the “plan” to complete the reforms.

The next progress report is to be released in December. The final report is due on May 25, 2020.

Nonetheless, in her letter, the state DOJ’s Beninati expressed confidence the SFPD would make significant progress during the second phase. “While challenges remain, we believe they are surmountable within the next two phases of the reform process with the full commitment of the SFPD, the City and the Commission.”


Update 6/5/19. Following the publication of this article, Police Commission President Bob Hirsch wrote Mission Local the following:

I write to address your piece on the SFPD’s slow implementation of the US DOJ reform measures.  There will always be fodder for PD criticism. But I believe San Franciscans deserve a fuller analysis of their police department — which it is — a department which must be for and of the people of this city.

What we are witnessing, in its early stages, is a change in culture at the Department.  It is slow and it will hopefully have an indefinite timeline, but the culture of policing is changing. The Department chose to tackle the most difficult reform measures first. Use of force, expanding the use of body cams, tasers, Bias training, disciplinary guidelines. Simply counting reform measures is easy but misleading.

Use of force is down over the past 2 years.  There has not been an officer involved shooting in about one year.  PD critics quickly brush these facts aside but they should not. Violent and property crimes are down over this time period as well — which means we are all seeing that use of force need not accompany community safety.  

Crisis Intervention training is at its peak — I believe most uniformed officers have received it.  And the Department is starting to recognize exemplary crisis interventions by awarding officers commendations. 

The sudden withdrawal by the US DOJ set us back half a year.  The Commission and the Department spent some 5 months analyzing and conducting hearings and meetings about tasers. The Supervisors then refused to grant funding for tased. If the Board of Supervisors had indicated earlier that it was not going to support the Department’s use of tasers, we would not have spent that time, effort and political capital on that reform recommendation.  

I believe more than half the Department members have now taken implicit bias training. This is important, because the demographics (racial disparities) reflected in the stop, search, arrest and force data remains very troubling.  We have a long way to go there. But improving the consciousness of police officers around Bias issues is critical. Let’s give people a fuller view and better understanding of how the Department is and will continue to change. This is not a 3 year project. This culture change, these reforms, are forever.”