The state Department of Justice slammed the San Francisco Police Department’s reform progress in a report released Wednesday, charging that the department is not working earnestly enough to complete the process it has committed itself to realizing.
In a letter to Chief Bill Scott, Nancy Beninati, the deputy attorney general supervising the reform effort, raised concerns “with reports of anti-Black bias within the department and with the persistent disproportionate use of force against African American and Latino individuals — concerns we know that you also share.”
The SFPD has completed a mere 40 of the 272 reforms it started on some three years ago — only 15 percent.
“ … Cal DOJ is concerned that the SFPD’s progress is too slow,” Beninati wrote. “The failure to implement a greater number of the recommendations is delaying the SFPD’s fulfillment of its promise to the community to get the work done.”
The letter is a blow to the department, which has been working since October 2016 to implement the U.S. Department of Justice’s 272 recommendations, which sought to reform the SFPD’s use-of-force, biased policing, community relations, accountability and hiring and training.
The federal Justice Department dropped out of the process in September 2017, and the Cal DOJ stepped in five months later to supervise the effort.
In today’s letter, the Cal DOJ criticized the department for not inviting enough community input in the drafting of its policies ”to its detriment and to the detriment of its community.”
Since the reform effort kicked off in 2017, the SFPD has hosted working group meetings with community members and policy experts to draft policy. And, throughout that process, community members have complained that they are not being heard.
The police department too often holds the meetings at its headquarters in Mission Bay during regular business hours, the Cal DOJ said. “ … This practice effectively renders these meetings inaccessible to many members of the public and creates a missed opportunity for valuable community input from different stakeholders … ” Beninati wrote.
She also noted that working groups do not meet frequently enough. Over the last eight months, the “use-of-force” and “recruitment and hiring” working groups met only once apiece. By contrast, the working group aimed at addressing anti-bias policies has “held regular, frequent, and well-attended meetings” that are ongoing.
This should be happening at every reform working group, she noted.
While praising the department for its training that helps officers de-escalate tense situations and people in crisis, “Cal DOJ observed that some SFPD trainers made stray remarks that undermined the training or contradicted the policy at issue in the training.”
Beninati did not specify what the stray remarks were and how often they happened.
“For obvious reasons,” she added, “we have informed SFPD that it is unacceptable to utilize trainers that provide information inconsistent with these policies.”
Beninati also raised alarm over an April 2019 letter that a former implicit bias trainer sent to Scott that detailed observations of extreme anti-black sentiment among high-ranking officers during the training. The letter was reported by the San Francisco Examiner in February.
“SFPD, of course, has a long way to go to address entrenched bias within the department and we will closely monitor its progress through the [collaborative reform initiative] process,” she wrote.
Despite the criticisms, the Cal DOJ noted that the lion’s share of the 40 completed reforms address use-of-force, a high priority issue for the department.
Those reforms seem to be taking hold, she said. Over the past year, the department reduced its use of force by 24 percent — and 47 percent since 2016. The city, furthermore, saw its lowest homicide rate in 17 years.
Beninati also praised Scott for addressing how officers respond to “bias by proxy” — when ordinary citizens call police based on their own racial and socioeconomic biases, as in the case of police being summoned when an African American businessman was seen entering his own lemonade stand on Valencia Street in July 2018.
The forthcoming “bias-free policing” policy lays out guidelines for how officers should respond to those calls. That policy is slated to be approved in the coming months.
In response, Scott did not address many of the DOJ’s criticisms — but said that, with some help, the department could move faster.
“SFPD is undergoing an enormous transformation and we are grateful for our partnership with California Department of Justice and [consultant] Hillard Heintze,” he said. “The technical assistance provided through this collaboration enables SFPD staff to address the many complex challenges associated with reform.”
It’s unclear when the reforms will be completed, and now long the Cal DOJ is committed to overseeing the effort. A so-called “final report” was expected in May of this year — but that timeline appears unfeasible. Beninati noted in her letter that the SFPD has agreed to extend the process “through the end of this year so that it can fulfill its commitment” to the reforms.