The San Francisco Police Commission raised major concerns about the police department’s disciplinary system Wednesday night.

The commissioners questioned Chief Bill Scott’s heavy use of informal “admonishments” to address misconduct, his tendency to frequently disagree with findings of officer misconduct — and his decision to allow some officers to escape discipline altogether.

As the discussion wore on, it became clear that the chief and members of the commission hold diverging ideas of what discipline should look like for the San Francisco police force. 

The chief spoke at length about “progressive discipline” and defined it succinctly. 

“Progressive discipline doesn’t start with discipline,” Scott said, defending his use of informal admonishments and training. “Counseling, admonishment, written reprimand, suspension days, termination — that’s progressive discipline.” 

By contrast, some commissioners saw the disciplinary system’s reliance on informal admonishments and lighter formal punishments, such as “written reprimands” and daylong suspensions, as inappropriate and ineffective for deterring bad behavior. 

“One of the things that’s come up again and again is, we’re seeing things come to us that seem like pretty serious cases — things that appear to be violent or felony conduct,” said Commissioner John Hamasaki. “And they’re getting … slaps on the wrists.” 

The discussion at Wednesday’s Police Commission meeting was prompted by a report produced this month by the Department of Police Accountability that raised a flurry of issues, including the chief regularly declining to discipline officers, overruling findings of misconduct, not notifying the DPA of disciplinary findings, and allowing the statute of limitations to run out in some discipline cases. 

Many commissioners said they found the contents of the DPA’s study “alarming.” Commissioner Petra DeJesus seemed especially troubled by the department serving discipline orders past the statute of limitations in four separate instances, allowing officers to “escape discipline,” she said. 

“Statute of limitations are being blown — totally unacceptable and no excuse,” she said. “The department not imposing discipline is either willful negligence or deliberate.” 

Commissioner Cindy Elias noted the instances where the chief declined to discipline officers who neglected to log enforcement stop data used to track racial bias, as mandated by state law. 

She raised the numerous instances in which officers were not disciplined for failing to log the information in their reports. “The fact that this violation doesn’t warrant some form of discipline is alarming, because we need this data and we rely on it and it’s important,” she said. “So, you know, that just didn’t sit well with me.” 

Most of the commissioners questioned the chief’s trend of disagreeing with the Department of Police Accountability’s misconduct findings roughly a third of the time — and declining to impose punishment on officers even when he does agree an officer committed misconduct. 

The report is rife with instances in which the DPA recommended a “written reprimand” for officers and the chief instead imposed “no discipline” at all. In an article published by Mission Local Tuesday, SFPD spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak noted that “no discipline” could take the form of an informal admonishment, which is recorded in an officer’s disciplinary record. 

But in a wide-ranging review published in October 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice specifically noted that ” … neither admonishment nor training is noted on an officer’s disciplinary record.” 

The Justice Department further discouraged the police department’s reliance on informal admonishments: “The goal of discipline is correcting action, and regularly imposing discipline of little consequence to misconduct undermines discipline’s deterrent value.”

Scott said at last night’s meeting that admonishments are now “tracked.” Yet it remains unclear when that policy went into effect and its specifics, and the police department has not responded to further questions about this. 

Nevertheless, Scott defended his use of admonishments. “Admonishments are appropriate for any discipline system, because there is a range of discipline,” he said. “Not everything merits suspension and not everything is a reprimand — but it does need to be addressed.”

Scott, furthermore, said he may disagree with a finding of misconduct by the DPA if “I don’t believe that the evidence is there to sustain” a finding of misconduct — even if an investigation by the watchdog proved that misconduct occurred. 

“And sometimes, there’s been occasions in this report where we’ve gone the other way — where I have decided that more discipline needs to be imposed,” Scott said. 

But that happened in only 2 percent of cases, according to the DPA’s report. 

At times, Scott appeared flustered and defensive as the commissioners questioned him. At one point, he even alleged that the commission, which makes the final decision on serious discipline like termination, played a role in reducing punishments for officers. 

Scott said he’s sent “quite a few” recommendations to the commission to terminate officers. “So I want to set the record straight [about] the insinuation that I’m giving a slap on the wrist,” he said. “There are a number of termination cases before this commission and our process is, some of these cases end up in settlements, and those settlements go where they go.” 

Scott did not specify exactly how many termination recommendations he’s sent to the Police Commission, and has not yet responded to a follow-up inquiry. We will update this story if and when he does respond. 

Hamasaki recognized the entire system’s role in not imposing strict enough discipline on officers, and hoped to “reframe” the discussion in the future. “Because this is just another sign to me of the feeling … that we’re not getting it done on discipline.” 

Update 9/18/20, 6:23 p.m.: Officer Robert Rueca responded to Mission Local’s question regarding informal admonishments and the number of terminations the chief has recommended in the last two years.

“In general, for minor, sustained cases the Chief may issue admonishments. Although admonishments are not considered discipline, the underlying facts of the sustained case are considered in the progressive discipline model for any subsequent case. DGO 2.07 and the Disciplinary Penalty & Referral Guidelines encompass the Department’s policies for discipline. These policies are currently being rewritten but have been used for over 20 years.”

However, it remains unclear how the system of providing informal admonishments has changed since the DOJ recommended against their use.

Rueca added that: “Since 2018, the Chief has recommended 22 members for termination to the Police Commission. An additional 11 members who were on probation/FTO were released by the Chief in connection to discipline cases.”

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