As thousands of people have taken to the streets of San Francisco to protest the killing of George Floyd and unfair, violent policing writ large, the San Francisco Police Department continues to plod along on a reform effort that, until this moment, seemed all but forgotten by the general public — and whose effects have gone little-noticed by those who matter most: low-income communities of color. 

To be sure, the SFPD has made progress in reducing news-grabbing police shootings. The only one in 2019 came in December 2019, with the Mission District shooting of Jamaica Hampton, who wielded a glass bottle at officers. Two officers shot Hampton collectively three times, resulting in his leg being amputated. The only shooting this year, so far, took place in the Tenderloin on April 21. An officer shot at a man who had allegedly brandished a knife at a residential hotel before purportedly advancing on officers. That officer missed and did not injure the suspect.  

During a Sunday press conference at 24th and Mission — and asked by Mission Local whether the SFPD was reforming quickly enough — Mayor London Breed noted the reduction in shootings and attributed it to the SFPD’s de-escalation and implicit bias trainings. Nevertheless, she recognized more work needs to be done.  

“Are we far enough?” she said. “No, we’re not far enough. But we’re going to get there.” 

Breed did not say exactly when the SFPD would get there, or what “there” even means. 

In fact, no one seems to know, and her most recent pair of appointees to the Police Commission were so lackluster that the full Board of Supervisors will consider them on Tuesday with a 2-1 recommendation from the Rules Committee to reject both

At present, the SFPD has officially completed 40 — or 15 percent — of the 272 reforms handed down by the U.S. Department of Justice in October 2016 in the wake of the Mario Woods shooting and multiple racist text messaging scandals, according to a recent report by the state Attorney General, which began overseeing the reform effort in 2018. 

“ … Cal DOJ is concerned that the SFPD’s progress is too slow,” wrote Nancy Beninati in a March 2020 letter to Chief Bill Scott, which accompanied the progress report. “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.” 

Police Chief Bill Scott wants cops to stop seating suspects on the sidewalk

Alleged gang members are detained in the Mission, 2018. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez.

Despite the lag, the SFPD has completed some important reforms. Roughly half of the department’s 2,300 officers are trained in crisis intervention techniques, which are used to de-escalate tense situations that could easily end in police brutality. Earlier, in December 2016, the department revised its use-of-force policy, which now emphasizes de-escalation and says “officers must strive to use the minimal amount of force necessary.” The policy inspired a law that changed the deadly use-of-force standard statewide. 

Since the policy was passed, the department’s use of force has dropped some 30 percent. But between December 2016 and now, there have been 15 police shootings, eight of them fatal. And, as a detailed account of a Mission District police shooting in March 2018 demonstrated, de-escalation is often not front-and-center in confrontations. 

Moreover, less than two weeks ago, the Police Commission passed a draft of an anti-bias policy mandating that officers identify themselves by name and rank, and state the reason the officer has stopped them, before asking for a person’s driver’s license and registration. 

In these instances, an officer must provide, in written form, the officer’s name, rank, star number, and information on how to file a complaint or commendation. As it stands (the policy must still be reviewed and haggled over by the San Francisco Police Officers Association), the policy is sweeping and “touches on every part of the work that the SFPD does,” said Public Defender Mano Raju. 

Even implementing these changes was a years-long tug-of-war between the police and policy experts, and it is unclear how it will emerge from mediation. 

Yet regardless of the perceived strides and a decline in high-profile police shootings, the SFPD continues to struggle with day-to-day biased policing. Between January and March of 2020, African Americans comprised 23 percent of all stops and 39 percent of all searches, while making up 5 percent of the city’s population, according to a recent report. Black men were on the receiving end of 31 percent of the SFPD’s use of force. 

Meanwhile, in the same period, whites comprised 35 percent of stops and 29 percent of searches — yet represent 52 percent of San Francisco’s population. White men were on the receiving end of 20 percent of the SFPD’s use of force. 

Members of the SFPD continue to deny that the stark numbers necessarily mean the police force is biased. During a working group on the aforementioned bias policy on February 24, Commander Teresa Ewins, the white police officer tasked with overseeing the bias working group, argued other “variables” could be at play during a discussion on stop data. She gave an example that people in Bayview-Hunters Point, kept turning in front of trains. 

“So what did we do?” she said. “We sent people to do enforcement. Well, depending on the time of day, the numbers will go up in regards to citations for African Americans, because at certain times of the day, we have a group that … generations have been hanging out there — if you know Third Street at all — and so the numbers go up.” 

“So is that saying that we’re being biased?” she said, explaining the police were simply enforcing the law. 

That anecdote flies in the face of the SFPD’s own data. 

The denial of systemic bias continues all the way to the top. The implicit bias training that Breed mentioned was exposed as fraught when a Department of Human Resources implicit bias trainer told Chief Scott in an April 14, 2019, letter that he sensed “extreme” anti-black sentiment during the trainings with high-ranking officers. 

Instead of calling for a probe, as former Police Commission president Bob Hirsch did following the reporting of this letter by the San Francisco Examiner, Scott issued a letter to rank-and-file officers discrediting the allegations. 

“I do not believe this department is anti-black nor do I believe SFPD possesses extreme negative sentiment against anyone we serve,” he wrote on Feb. 13. Moreover, it was the exposure of the letter, not its contents, that seemed to anger him. 

“I am deeply disappointed that in this case, that safe space for our members was violated,” he said of the trainer’s letter. “We cannot allow this incident to undermine the intent and value of this training and the hard work we are doing.” 

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