Former San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen cleared her first hurdle to becoming a San Francisco Police Commissioner on Monday, as the supes’ Rules Committee lauded her record on police reform and advanced her in a 3-0 vote to a final confirmation hearing.
Cohen currently serves on the California Board of Equalization and was nominated to the Police Commission in July by Mayor London Breed after the supes rejected Breed’s previous picks. Cohen’s consideration to serve on the seven-member police oversight board comes amid a national reckoning over law enforcement, and as San Francisco reimagines the role of its police department.
Although Breed’s nomination of Cohen was widely embraced and Cohen seems likely to fill one of two empty Police Commission seats, the hearing offered a glimpse into the type of commissioner Cohen will become.
In opening statements, Cohen highlighted her accomplishments in police reform including a 2015 ordinance she authored that requires the San Francisco Police Department to produce quarterly data on traffic stops, searches, and use of force. It remains an extraordinary transparency measure that has helped to illustrate the SFPD’s disproportionate policing of people of color, particularly Black men, and the reports are regularly a topic of discussion at Police Commission meetings.
Cohen also noted she authored 2016’s Proposition G, a successful ballot measure that strengthened the role of the Department of Police Accountability, which investigates police misconduct and, following the passage of the measure, could independently investigate police shootings and audit SFPD policy.
The police shooting of Mario Woods in 2015, and other police shootings in the Bayview during her tenure from 2011 to 2019, Cohen said, spurred much of this work. “It was really through a series of … uncomfortable experiences with grieving families and mothers and dealing with town hall meetings, that I began to feel a strong sense and urgency of now” — the need for police reform, she said.
And even more so in the post-George Floyd era, Cohen said. “Now is the time to be bold and unapologetic in our movement to bring more criminal justice reforms to the entire system.”
For most of today’s hearing, the supervisors’ questions of their former colleague remained light. But Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who chairs the committee, pressed Cohen on the budget and the “defund the police” movement, asking: What current policing responsibilities should be assumed by other departments and does Cohen support police officer layoffs?
Cohen questioned using police officers for calls involving people suffering from mental health episodes. “I don’t know if those are police calls,” she said. “I don’t know if we need police there.”
And Cohen said she would support layoffs, as long as they are “thoughtful.” She spoke of “purging the system of bad apples” and mentioned the 23 SFPD officers who have voluntarily left the department in the first half of this year — 19 of them moving to other law enforcement agencies. ‘Perhaps those that are leaving are leaving because the climate has become uncomfortable,” she said.
Referring to the 2 percent raises currently being negotiated for all of the 2,300 sworn SFPD officers this year, Cohen said “there needs to be a freeze on this.”
Ronen also pressed Cohen on the politics of the Police Commission, which, at times, have turned vitriolic.
The commission is composed of four commissioners appointed by the mayor and three appointed by the Board of Supervisors. On controversial votes, mayoral appointees — who tend to lean less progressive — often vote in a bloc, creating a perceived power imbalance.
That imbalance was evident in votes to arm SFPD officers with Tasers, the disciplining of the officer who killed Jessica Williams, and the most recent vote on the commission president and vice president, which ended in the board-appointed commissioners walking out of the meeting in protest.
Ronen asked Cohen whether she’d commit to supporting a “split leadership” dynamic in which a board appointee could serve as vice president while a mayoral appointee served as president. Ronen said she’s heard board appointees “get pushed out from even knowing certain things are on the agenda,” she said.
Cohen would not pledge to support such a dynamic, lacking enough information, but she noted that she “fought” for the appointments of current board-appointed commissioners Cindy Elias and John Hamasaki, and supported Petra DeJesus when she rejoined the commission in 2017. “I’m open to it,” she said of Ronen’s ask.
Moreover, Cohen said that, if ultimately appointed, she would make changes to the commission’s procedure. She said that people waiting four hours for public comment was “abhorrent.” Cohen also said she wanted only to go into “closed session” — usually a time when commissioners conduct disciplinary hearings — ”when absolutely necessary.”
Overall, Cohen said, she wanted to get to work at such an important time in police reform. “This is a moment in time I intend not to squander,” she said.