San Francisco police stations will soon display large “Black Lives Matter” posters, a move intended to show the police department’s “support for Black lives” and willingness to form policies to curb the SFPD’s ongoing disproportionate policing of the city’s Black community.
The Police Commission voted 5-0 Wednesday to pass the resolution that also commits the department to “make bias-free policing a reality” and improve its use-of-force policies. The department continues to disproportionately use force against, stop, and search people of color — especially Black people — according to department data.
“This resolution is a small gesture to show that our department stands in solidarity for Black lives,” said Commissioner DionJay Brookter, who introduced the resolution.
Despite overwhelming support from all five commissioners — as well as Chief Bill Scott — the San Francisco Police Officers Association objected to the move in a letter sent to the Department of Human Resources before the meeting on Wednesday. The union said it had “serious concerns” about the move, fueled by some officers contacting the union “expressing concern over the matter.”
“Police stations are places for the citizens of San Francisco to seek help and assistance when they have become victims of crimes,” wrote Rocky Lucia of the Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver law firm, which represents the union. “They are not places for political endorsements or alignment with political organizations.”
Having read the letter earlier in the day, the commissioners expressed their disgust. “I don’t understand it,” said Vice President Damali Taylor. “I don’t get why the letter talked about it being political speech, which is absolute horseshit.”
“If you have such a visceral reaction to a poster that says Black Lives Matter,” Taylor continued, “I want you to search your heart.”
Chief Scott made it clear that he supported the move. “The department is fully committed to this resolution,” Scott said. “Black lives do matter and they matter to this police department.”
In fact, it was Scott who had to ban officers from wearing “Thin Blue Line” COVID-19 face masks that the POA distributed to officers in early May. The masks were criticized for being symbolic of the “Blue Lives Matter” movement, which is a counter-protest to Black Lives Matter. The masks were, indeed, political statements — and they were not approved by the Police Commission, which is the final authority of over department policy.
“This letter is another reminder that the POA simply does not get it,” said Commissioner John Hamasaki.
Although the resolution received overwhelming support, observers of the SFPD’s reform effort reminded the chief and the commission that commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement should not stop at hanging a sign.
Brian Cox, a deputy Public Defender, said that the move must be followed with reforms that actually protect Black lives. “And these reforms should happen immediately,” Cox said. “Reform can’t take years and years while Black folks continue to be overpoliced and over prosecuted.”
Indeed, in the first three months of 2020, Black men were on the receiving end of 31 percent of the department’s use of force — more than half of that force was officers pointing their guns at the Black men, according to department data. Meanwhile, white men were on the receiving end of 20 percent of the department’s force. Black people comprise only five percent of the city’s population.
While force continues to be used disproportionately on people of color, the department has not committed a fatal shooting since shooting and killing 21-year-old Jehad Eid in March 2018 at a barbershop in the Excelsior. However, an SFPD officer shot at and missed a Black man seemingly charging toward the officer in the Tenderloin in April of this year.
Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing Policy
The Police Commission on Wednesday also passed a tentative version of a policy that will require police officers to provide interpreters to people who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing.
Although the policy passed unanimously and with little deliberation among the commissioners, the policy was more than two years in the making — a fraught process that began in late 2017 with complaints that a deaf domestic violence survivor had been wrongfully arrested because she couldn’t communicate with officers.
And still, even with Wednesday’s vote, the policy remains unimplemented — as it now must be reviewed by the San Francisco Police Officers Association during a “meet-and-confer” session. Through these meetings, the union can weigh in on policy can drag the process on indefinitely if there are disagreements.
Nevertheless, policy experts, advocates, and commissioners were relieved that policy cleared the major hurdle as the commission voted 5-0 (with two unfilled seats) to pass it onto the union’s review. “This is a big deal,” said Paul Henderson, the director of Department of Police Accountability, which kicked off the policy-making process in November 2017. “When we talk about an inclusionary agenda for public safety, it’s legislation like this and decisions like this that make a difference.”
A central component of the policy requires officers to provide a “communication card” that allows a Deaf person to point to their preferred method of communication, such as American Sign Language or a pen and paper. An officer must provide that form of communication, including an interpreter. The card also allows a person unable to communicate through speech to point symbols indicating what the person may need help with.
“This is just the beginning,” said Samara Marion, the DPA’s policy director, explaining that policy also commits the department to implementing the Language Line app on the officers’ cell phones, which can call up a video American Sign Language interpreter on-demand.
Since 2015, the DPA received seven complaints from Deaf individuals about negative interactions with police, according to Marion, who helped to write the policy and spearhead the reform effort.