While Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday signed a new law that made it more difficult for police to shoot civilians with impunity, a small San Francisco Police Department working group has long been working to reform an oft-overlooked component of these deaths: bias. 

Of the 80 people who have died this year at the hands of California police officers, 52 percent were black or Latino and just 25 percent were white (22 percent were “other” or unknown”), according to Washington Post data

Correcting bias, however, has proved to be a serious challenge. That became clear once again on Monday afternoon when about a dozen people — lawyers, civilian reformers, and police officials — spent an entire hour at San Francisco Police Department Headquarters simply attempting to nail down a definition for “biased policing.” 

When devised, it will be applied to a revision of a 2011 policy on eliminating bias from the department. 

It’s not certain when that’ll be; on Monday — and not for the first time — the group failed to settle on a definition. But they did get close. 

Biased policing “is an act, intentional or unintentional, that is the basis of police action that inappropriately distinguishes people by race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, age, or socio-economic status,” per the International Association of Chiefs of Police.) 

This kind of work may seem subtle compared to the sweeping effects of the new law, AB 392, which greatly restricts when officers are allowed to use deadly force. Up until Monday, officers could do so when it was objectively “reasonable.” Now, that standard has changed: Officers can only use deadly force only when it’s “necessary in defense of human life.” 

While this makes California a state with one of the tightest restrictions on police use of force, an equally big problem in police shootings has been who officers are using force on. Despite a 30 percent decline in use-of-force in San Francisco since 2016, that force, including deadly force, is disproportionately used on people of color, particularly black men. 

“There’s a history we want to make sure we acknowledge,” said Police Commissioner Cindy Elias following Monday’s meeting, when asked about the definition’s importance. “Biased policing has happened in various communities, and we want to make sure [our] community trusts the police department, and feels comfortable with the police department.” 

Right now, that relationship is still fraught. According to SFPD data, San Francisco police officer searches involved black residents — who make up just  5.6 percent of the city’s population — 40 percent of the time from January to March of this year. SFPD stops were also sharply disproportionate and involved blacks 25 percent of the time. 

Latinos, who account for 15 percent of the population, represented 22 percent of searches in the same period. Nineteen percent of SFPD stops were of Latino subjects.  

A similar laboring over language, undertaken by these same lawyers and department officials, resulted in the SFPD’s use-of-force policy, which went into effect in December 2016. That policy strongly emphasizes the use of “de-escalation” — the practice of considering a person’s mental state before using force — and strongly considering the level of force necessary for resolving the incident. 

Since then, the SFPD’s documented use-of-force has declined some 30 percent. 

A working definition of biased policing at Monday’s meeting. Photo by Julian Mark.

Some of the discussion on Monday revolved around whether bias in policing could be unintentional — and whether officers can be disciplined for something “unintentional.”  

“My problem with this is that we’re saying that ‘unintentionally’ [in the definition] means ‘biased policing.’” Commander Teresa Ewins said. “Is that what we’re saying?” 

“It’s hard to actually enforce if something’s unintentional,” said Commissioner Damali Taylor. 

“But isn’t our definition of biased policing different than what one can be disciplined for?” interjected Samara Marion, the policy director for the Department of Police Accountability. “So say someone is stopping Latinos disproportionately — doesn’t realize it — but they’re doing it.” 

“That’s still biased policing,” Marion said. 

At this point, it’s unclear whether an officer can be disciplined for a “pattern” of biased behavior. 

Marion suggested that if an officer could be disciplined if he or she were made aware of a pattern of biased behavior and “continued engaging in that biased policing.” 

“I actually disagree,” Ewins said. 

This kind of deliberation will continue in the coming months, and it’s unclear when this particular policy will go into effect. The California Department of Justice, which took over the role of overseeing reform attempts at the San Francisco Police Department following the U.S. DOJ’s abrupt exit Feb. 2018, will ostensibly issue a final report on the department’s progress is in May. 

Any future policy must clear a number of bureaucratic hurdles, including a “meet-and-confer” with the San Francisco Police Officers Association and final adoption by the Police Commission. 

Before then, the working group still must hash out the most hotly contested portion of the policy: whether or not every San Francisco police officer, no matter what, must hand out a business card containing the officer’s name, rank, and star number, as well as information on how to file a complaint or commendation. 

Presently, the policy does not require SFPD officers to hand cards out after every encounter — and reformers want that changed. An earlier attempt to rewrite the policy failed, but the committee has returned to again consider language that will hardwire business cards into police procedures.

A similar policy was adopted in New York City. NYPD officers must hand out cards providing information on how civilians can obtain body camera footage. (Right now, California police departments are only required to release footage of serious or deadly use-of-force incidents within 45 days of the incident.) 

The next meeting, which is open to the public, will be held Sep. 5 at 1 p.m. at SFPD Headquarters (1251 3rd St.).