After three years, the San Francisco Police Department has completed 29 of the 272 reform recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Justice. That’s 11 percent. With nine-tenths of the work remaining, community members remain wary of the effort involved and note that, accordingly, they’re seeing few changes on the ground.
“As a young black man in [Bayview-Hunters Point], encounters with police are extremely scary,” said 21-year-old Rome Jones at a Tuesday Board of Supervisors hearing on the department’s progress.
“A traffic ticket could lead to the end of my life,” added Jones, who sits on the city’s Youth Commission.
The hearing marked the first time in some two years’ time that the Board of Supervisors checked in on the SFPD reform effort. It has not progressed smoothly since October 2016, when the federal DOJ published its review of the department in response to multiple controversial police shootings and multiple scandals involving the exchange of racist, sexist, and homophobic text messages among officers.
The U.S. Department of Justice in September 2017 suspended its involvement in the reform process under then-U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, leaving a six-month hiatus in which the department scrambled to find a new overseer and eventually began working with the state Department of Justice in February 2018.
Since then, SFPD Chief Bill Scott told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, the department has achieved “substantial compliance” on 11 percent, or 29, of the recommendations, with 170 still “in progress” and 73 caught in the back-and-forth of the review process. A report on the second of three phases of the process will be released sometime in December, and a final report is due in May 2020, when all the reforms should ostensibly be complete.
Regarding the seemingly slow progress, Scott emphasized that the process is not only about “checking boxes.”
“This is an all-inclusive, evolving process that takes time,” he continued.
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The reforms cover improvements to the department’s use of force, community policing, bias, accountability, and recruitment and hiring. So far, the department has completed recommendations around incorporating de-escalation techniques, implicit bias training, and community policing measures such as an increase in foot patrols and the implementation of “community police advisory boards,” which take input from community members.
Scott emphasized use-of-force has declined some 30 percent since the department began directing officers to use “time and distance” when dealing with people in crisis. Ninety-six percent of the department has received a 10-hour crisis intervention training, while 49 percent have received a 40-hour training. And the department has not had a police shooting in some 15 months, he said — something that “has not been done in recent memory.”
“Officer-involved shootings is really what got us here,” he said, referring to the reform effort. “There were a lot of other things, but — frankly — officer-involved shooting is what got us here.”
But Supervisor Hillary Ronen pressed Scott on why black and brown people in San Francisco are disproportionately affected by the department’s use of force.
The chief told Ronen that use of force against African Americans has declined some 33 percent since 2016. But Scott said that was no excuse for why African Americans disproportionately have guns pointed at them, are struck with officers’ fists or other objects, or are subject to physical control — year after year.
From April to June of this year, African Americans were on the receiving end of 40 percent of that kind of force, while Latinos were subject to 21 percent. Blacks make up roughly 5 percent of the city’s population, while Latinos comprise around 15 percent.
Meanwhile, whites were on the receiving end of 26 percent of SFPD use-of-force, while whites comprise roughly 50 percent of the population.
“The disparities are concerning,” Scott said, explaining the department is analyzing how to close that gap but has so far not found a concrete solution.
A cavalcade of skeptical speakers lined up following Scott’s presentation to express their dismay at the pace of the reform effort.
“For me, I’m still left wondering — where are the reforms?” said Father Richard Smith, an Episcopal priest in the Mission District and a police activist. He recounted a recent incident in which six officers barged into his church, St. John the Evangelist on 15th and Julian streets, with their guns drawn. He says officers hassled the largely Latinx congregation while they searched for a robbery suspect.
“It makes wonder whether we have addressed the racism and cultural insensitivity that has scarred this department for many years,” Smith said.
Adriana Camarena, a police accountability activist, said she participated in the working group aimed at the “community policing” reforms. “I sat there every meeting, and I would ask then Commander [David] Lazar … could you please tell us what is the result of the recommendation you’re making? And we never got an answer,” she said. “Over and over, I asked, what is the recommendation that you are making to the chief, and what is the chief deciding?”
“There was never an answer,” Camarena said. “I quit that group the day after.”
Phelicia Jones, who leads the Justice For Mario Woods Coalition, said that despite the reduction in use of force, “black San Franciscans do not matter in San Francisco.”
Jones said she was troubled by the disparities regarding police treatment of minorities, particularly black citizens, and she had hoped to speak just a little longer at the lectern. She and the coalition had spent hours preparing for the hearing, she said. But her allotted two minutes had run out.
As she continued to speak, she was escorted away by Sheriff’s Deputies.
“You can’t continue to treat us like this,” she said.