Police formed a circle around the remaining protesters and prevented onlookers from getting through. Photo taken December 2014.

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.” 

Please support local media. 

Joe Eskenazi

Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. “Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior...

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33 Comments

    1. Thanks for reading, officer.

      I figured that when you forcibly grab someone around the neck and apply pressure, that would apply as “choking.”

      But you’re not wrong: I have learned that police distinguish between a “stranglehold” in which blood is cut off from the brain, and mere “choking,” which involves cutting off air supply.

      Yet, to be honest, this is an odd takeaway from this story. And it’s also a pretty amazing semantic differentiation to insist upon — which, I think, gets to a lot of people’s frustration right now. But, credit where credit is due: You’re right.

      Both this stranglehold and choke holds are not permitted in San Francisco.

      I have updated this article.

      JE

      1. You done your research. Now apologize to all of us boys in blue who’re protecing you from the bums and commies.

        1. No. With all due respect, the country isn’t beset by an epidemic of bums and commies beating or killing people and facing little recourse.

          JE

        2. Officer Milton,

          Hopefully, you don’t represent a majority of cops.

          I understand that you might.

          Given the recruitment protocol of your department.

          If so?

          You have to be eased out thru attrition.

          You are really really a discouraging voice.

          h.

        3. Why are you cops such babies? I don’t feel safe knowing that tantrum throwing brats like you are responsible for my safety

      2. It speaks to your credibility as a journalist that you think my insisting on accuracy in police reporting is an “odd takeaway.”

        It speaks to your credibility as someone who frequently writes about police issues that you think the difference between a carotid restraint and a chokehold is “mere semantics” and that’s “amazing” someone would bring it up.

        Perhaps a different type of writing assignment would be more appropriate for you. How about the exciting world of robotic sports. Mission Local doesn’t cover that much.

        1. Hello again, officer.

          The fact you would choose to focus, to the exclusion of everything else, on officers being allowed or not allowed to — literally — “strangle” someone instead of “choke” them remains an amazing takeaway.

          For those who’d question my credibility because I failed to initially parse the difference between “strangling” a subject rather than “choking” them, mea culpa. Get your news elsewhere.

          Thanks for the career advice. But I think I’ll keep on covering human beings.

          Yours,

          JE

          1. I don’t come to Mission Local for “news.” I mostly just come when I want a good chuckle. In order for Mission Local to be considered news, in order for Mission Local to be actually “covering the police”, they’d have to report on the many positive things the department does. Like the abundance of quality felony arrests. The Medal of Valor ceremonies. The people in mental health crisis that our officers safely get into custody without a scratch to anyone. I’m no media expert, but I know this information is readily available via press releases and departmental statements. As it stands, Mission Local doesn’t cover the police any more than a sportswriter would cover the Golden State Warriors when he/she only reports on the fouls the Warriors committed and the shots they missed. Don’t get me wrong, SFPD has problems just like every other department and we need to be called out when we screw up. But we get a lot of things right too. Would be nice to see them in print every now and again.

  1. I thought Sup. Yee initiated a study that showed that the number of cops in the City needed to be increased to over 2,000? Is this correct?

      1. Funny the Washington Post’s excellent data base on national police shootings over the last 5 years debunks the widely held, but not accurate narrative of a “epidemic” of police killings. The Post apparently was disappointed as I am sure you will be if you checked it out. Perhaps that research might better inform your pieces about SFPD. But who am I kidding right?

        1. The Post states, unambiguously, more than 1,000 people have been shot dead by police in the past year.

          What’s the matter with you?

          JE

          1. For the last 5 years a 1000 or so, a tiny fraction of those unarmed. No doubt you believe that the police can function in a country of 330 million where guns and violence are as american as apple pie and not have to resort to deadly force at 1000 or so a year, despite the millions of police contacts they have with the public.

          2. No, dude. That was for the last year.

            Please take your business to another website.

            JE

          3. Police have the constitutional right to defend themselves and others in the face of bodily harm danger. The need to use deadly force is a decision not taken very lightly. Cops know that a decision to use deadly force must stand up to scrutiny by their administration, DA’s office, DPA, and increasingly other agencies such as DOJ and FBI. There have been instances of criminal prosecution against cops who use deadly force. The fact that prosecution of cops involved in deadly shootings is the exception and not the rule is testament and proof that the shooting met the judicial standards of justification. Mr Eskenazi, please contact the police agency of your choosing, may I suggest Oakland or San Francisco, and schedule a ride along. Do a weeks worth of ride alongs, that would make an excellent journalistic piece for this outlet. In addition, contact the agency’s respective training facilities and enroll yourself in simulations training. I would love to see your perspectives after you do both.

          4. Sir or madam —

            Lot of good stuff in this comment, lot of nonsense.

            The lack of prosecutions is because the laws have been written — and have evolved — to make prosecutions nigh impossible for all but the most cavalier or incompetent officers.

            You could look it up. Even systems more progressive than our own exonerate officers 98 percent of the time without charges being filed.

            https://web.archive.org/web/20180616194253/https://www.modernluxury.com/san-francisco/story/stamped-out

            I was born in this city and have been covering it for parts of 20 years — I am well aware that police have a difficult job and are often left to deal with difficult people. I’ve also left the Bay Area and the country, and gone to places where it’s not acceptable or the norm for this level of violence — even lethal violence — to be applied by the police.

            There are other ways to do things.

            JE

            And yet

  2. Where should pressure be applied to try to counterbalance the union pressure if one wanted to bring data to the table in this arena? (Which sounds reasonable to me.)

    Ps- while my preferred pronouns are he/him, sir or madam might not cover all the bases generally

  3. Sir or Madam–

    Notwithstanding your newly acquired admiration of intellectualism of William F. Buckley, the more popular and I think practical definition of a Conservative is “A person who has been mugged.” Especially in this era of “radical conservatism “.

    1. That’s a good definition, too, and is coupled with the phrase “a liberal is someone who’s just been arrested.”

      With that said, Buckley’s definition works well considering the process described in this article.

      You don’t have to have admiration of his intellectualism to realize he was on to something here.

      JE

  4. Presently the city charter has the minimum number of officer at 1971 to safely protect the city. This was voted on by the people of San Francisco. The city has rarely been near that number especially since the department took over the Airport police. This number was voted on in the 80s before crack cocaine and now more drugs, before the homeless issue to the degree it has ballooned to, before new neighborhoods developed like Soma, Mission Rock, etc. If the police will be called upon less for what are considered non law enforcement issues then maybe the staff could be lessened. But the idea of using social workers, etc to handle calls from the public might be good but will take years to develop a job description, hire, train enough staff to handle calls 24/7 365 days a year. Having a surplus of officers also allows a robust training opportunity to be able to provide constant training without leaving the patrol and response duties short staffed.

    1. Keith — 

      We voted on this in 1994, not the 1980s. So we had an inkling about what crack was, etc.

      I have a chart from the city of police levels through the years I’ve posted to other stories. Here it is:

      https://s3.amazonaws.com/missionloca/mission/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/unnamed.png

      As you can see, while we rarely hit the 1,971 number, we’re not all that far from it.

      Long story short: that tally was not carried down from Mt. Sinai. We voted to make that the official number and we can vote to make another number, higher or lower, the mandatory level. Or no mandatory level. This isn’t immutable.

      JE

      1. According to the NYT, there were 1935 officers at the time of the 1975 Police Strike (pop declining to 680,000 by 1980). Declared illegal, it involved defiance, drunken picket lines, and even a bomb on the Mayors front lawn (yeah, they have those in Presidio Hgts – lawns, I mean). The Supe’s (I think they were paid $235/yr then) unanimously declined to approve a proposed 13% pay hike contract settlement; so the mayor grabbed it and signed it notwithstanding, and it was legally binding anyway. POA has a habit of getting its way, going back into the fog.

        BTW, the Strike was one of the most peaceful times that I’ve experienced in almost 50 yrs here (aside from this virus thingy). Ppl obeyed traffic laws, and seems like even the drunks & criminals were on their best behavior

      2. Levity time,

        So, speaking of numbers …

        Moses comes down from the mountain and speaks to the tribes:

        “I have good news and bad news.”

        Crowd shouts back:

        “Give us the good news first.”

        Moses replies:

        “I got him down to 10 Commandments!”

        Crowd:

        “So, what’s the bad news?”

        Moses:

        “One of them is still adultery.”

        There are already more than 2,200 cops on SF’s force.

        We could put another couple hundred on the street if
        we could lower their number of cops riding desks down
        to LA’s percentage.

        Ammiano pushed that for years.

        They never budged a bit.

        Sometimes Willie told them to stop responding to BOS
        requests that they appear before committees.

        Tom could only shake his head and say … “Oh, well.”

        Buy his book: ‘Kiss My Gay Ass’.

        Great historical read.

        You know he spent 2 years in a small village teaching
        english for the Quakers?

        They hid him above a water tank in a closet when Tet hit.

        h.

  5. If our elected city leaders are afraid to pass legislation, campaign for charter reforms, and get a better union contract, then all this protest is for naught.

  6. Thank you for reading my comment. Please point out what you mean by “nonsense” in my comment. I like how you referenced an article you wrote yourself as supporting evidence to support your point of view. At any rate, you know that Connor vs Graham is one of many cases that dictate the legality of uses of force by the police? The shooting you mentioned was examined by Gascon, who later headed the Blue Ribbon Commission, and he cited many reasons why the shooting was justified and met standards set by the US Supreme Court. I look forward to your perspective article after going on ride-alongs with either SFPD or OPD and after simulations training. That’s IF you have the intestinal fortitude to do so.

    1. Hey dude — 

      Really love you calling out my “intestinal fortitude” in your anonymous web comment.

      JE

  7. Eskenazi

    I posted my opinion like 99% of the people here. I must have missed the prompts for full name, phone number, and address.
    You are an eloquent writer and look forward to your article after going on ride along and simulation training.

    1. Wab,

      I challenge you to go on a ‘Walk along’ with me every morning
      as the sunrises and I go to 16th and Mission to get my morning
      paper.

      Come in a black sweat suit with a hoodie and don’t carry a
      a gun or badge.

      If you have the balls.

      Go Giants!

  8. Cops,

    You hate this City and it’s values.

    We all know that.

    You’re tough as hell anonymously online but too cowardly
    to walk a regular beat or man a Koban.

    It’s all about donuts and pensions for you.

    You have to go.

    Don’t let the door hit you in your MAGA patooie on the way out.

    No one needs to get fired or lose their pensions.

    Just be quiet as we transition back to Patrol Specials who are
    neighborhood based and respected by same.

    Go Giants!

    h.

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