Sources: Supervisor Norman Yee now poised to move forward legislation that could undo police staffing minimum

The San Francisco Police Officers Association has, over the past several years, pulled off an impressive string of improbable and self-inflicted defeats worthy of a movie montage — complete with spinning newspapers marking each setback. 

What would the background music be? How about “Yakkity Sax”? 

And what would the headlines be on those spinning papers? Well, in short order, the POA has managed to belittle and alienate virtually every consequential San Francisco politician, of all political stripes, including the woman who would become mayor; in 2018 it attempted a ballot box power play by attempting to get voters to ratify its own self-crafted Taser regulations, spent a ton of money, and lost by a 60-40 split after being out-organized by the Democratic Socialists of America; and in 2019 it amassed some $700,000 to topple DA candidate Chesa Boudin and spent it on such parodically over-the-top ads that it was credited with galvanizing Boudin’s supporters and propelling him to a narrow election victory. 

In addition to all of that, the POA in 2016 sued the city after the implementation of a revised police use-of-force policy eliminating carotid-artery restraints, lost in court in 2017, and lost again on appeal in 2018

Coziness with the POA, once a means to an end and a prized asset for politicians, has become the kiss of death — both for elected officials and would-be police commissioners. 

And yet, as the losses mount — at the ballot box, in the court of public opinion, and in the actual courts — the POA remains a powerful and influential institution. 

Unlike newspapers, spinning or otherwise. 

Election night, 2019: “I got just one thing to say: Fuck the POA,” says Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer. For good measure, she adds, “This is what happens when we throw the fuck down.” Photo by Julian Mark.

How is that possible? Well, for starters, the POA’s power was always multifaceted — and, frankly, misunderstood. Like the firefighters union, a POA endorsement likely entailed a good deal of money — but never really involved something even more valuable: a hands-on effort from large numbers of unionized employees canvassing neighborhoods and knocking on doors. 

People react well when firefighters knock on their doors. But it’s not a good look for cops to knock on doors. 

That’s because, when people call the fire department, very rarely do firefighters arrive and set the house ablaze. To be a cop usually entails a far more complex and dicier set of circumstances, and necessitates dealing with far more fraught and potentially adversarial situations — and when things go badly, they can go very badly indeed.

And yet the POA remains influential and relevant. Why? Well, it was William F. Buckley who said that “a conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” 

And that’s it. The POA does that. The union has lots of money and good, aggressive lawyers and its power lies in an expert knowledge of the levers and gears of government — and a lack of inhibition in standing athwart them, yelling stop

In a city in which labor decisions are delivered by binding arbitration, the POA is willing to dig in its heels, yell stop, and invoke this grueling process at nearly every step. As such, even after its “Yakkity Sax” concatenation of defeats and subpar choices, the POA can still wield power — and induce the city to defer to it.

Even when the city needn’t. And shouldn’t. 

Keith Bell stands outside the Mission Police station. Photo by Lola M. Chavez, June 2017.

When a Superior Court judge and subsequently the Court of Appeal ruled against the POA regarding the use-of-force policy, it wasn’t weighing in on whether the carotid restraint or shooting at moving vehicles are cool and efficacious things to do. 

Rather it was a more technical decision regarding what obligations this city has to meet and confer with the union and what constitutes “management rights” of the sort not subject to bargaining — and delays.

The courts, like those before, found that “changing the policy regarding a police officer’s use of deadly force” is “a fundamental managerial or policy decision” and is therefore “outside the scope of representation for the … meet-and-confer requirement.” 

In other words, the city was within its rights to cease negotiating and move ahead with the policy — the policy we now have. A key passage from the Court of Appeal’s 2018 decision: 

Moreover, compelling the City to arbitrate issues surrounding the new use of force policy before it can be implemented would defeat the purpose of requiring cities to make fundamental managerial or policy decisions independently. That is because it would essentially allow the [POA] to hold the policy in abeyance indefinitely… 

Which brings us to the present: On May 19, Board President Norman Yee introduced a Charter Amendment that would mandate some manner of data-driven process be used to determine the optimal size of the police department. Crucially, this legislation would undo the city’s arbitrary enshrinement of 1,971 sworn officers as the Charter-mandated minimum. In the future, we could hire more cops — but also fewer. 

Because that number could be reduced, the POA fervently despised this amendment — even if diminishing the police force seemed unlikely at the time Yee introduced it. And then, six days later, Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25. 

Board President Norman Yee.

“Defunding” police and reallocating those resources to people without badges and guns and qualified immunity is now mainstream policy. And, without Yee’s Charter Amendment, San Franciscans cannot meaningfully defund the police until 2022

So, it was of some interest when Mission Local on June 19 reported that Yee was bogged down in meet-and-confer meetings with the POA — and, within City Hall, it was seen as a long shot that he could make the July 21 deadline to get his amendment on the ballot.

The POA, which is clearly incentivized to keep this issue from being voted on, is in a position to meet and confer (and meet and meet and meet) its way into ensuring just that. 

That’s not surprising. What’s surprising is, the city is allowing this to happen.

While meet-and-confer sessions are de rigueur when discussing “working conditions,” Yee’s legislation doesn’t affect working conditions — it merely enables future decisions that may or may not affect working conditions. 

Moreover, considering the court rulings in both 2017 and 2018, it’s hard to see how Yee’s legislation was subject to such time-consuming, open-ended negotiations — with, again, a union every bit incentivized to drag things out and miss an immutable deadline. 

In short, the POA is still being given more deference here than a series of judges have ruled it needs to be given. Perhaps old habits die hard. 

Interestingly, our sources tell us that Yee’s office was not told by the Deputy City Attorney handling this matter about the significance of the court rulings in the POA’s recent lawsuit. 

But that message has been delivered now, albeit by outside attorneys familiar with that case. Yee, we are told, is now far more hopeful that his legislation falls within the permitted scope of managerial prerogative. 

Rather than scrap this legislation, it now appears that Yee is ready to move it along. Rather than meet and confer indefinitely, his legislation is tentatively slated to be put before the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee on July 6.

The POA will always stand athwart our city government and yell, “meet and confer.” Our city government needs to get in the habit of yelling back, “stop.” 

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