One 45-day suspension was the most severe penalty paid by a San Francisco police officer over a two-and-a-half-year period and 349 cases of police misconduct, according to a study released by a civilian watchdog this month. 

And that was for a fatal police shooting. 

The vast majority of officers charged with misconduct in San Francisco receive “written reprimands,” one- to two-day suspensions, or no consequences at all, in the city’s disciplinary system, according to a report by the Department of Police Accountability that examined 349 findings of misconduct by 260 police officers from June 2017 to December 2019. 

In more than one-third of the cases in which the DPA recommended discipline for SFPD officers, Chief William Scott imposed a milder penalty, or none at all — even in the many cases where the DPA recommended a relatively light admonishment, such as a written reprimand. Meanwhile, 15 percent of the chief’s disciplinary decisions during that period are unknown. 

One case that fell outside of the scope of the study was the 2018 “release” of rookie officer Christopher Samayoa, who shot and killed Keita O’Neil, an unarmed carjacking suspect, in the Bayview projects in December 2017. Samayoa, however, was in a probationary period and not entitled to the full disciplinary process. 

Outside of a probationary period, police discipline is a complex process that sees the Department of Police Accountability and the SFPD’s Internal Affairs department concurrently perform investigations that often come to different conclusions. When the disciplinary recommendation is relatively minor — a written reprimand to a 10-day suspension — the chief will weigh each finding and make the final decision on what discipline to impose.   

Discipline considered more serious — an 11-day suspension to a termination — is decided by the Police Commission. It weighs the evidence and disciplinary recommendations presented by the DPA and the chief. 

The 45-day suspension is a case in point. Chief Scott and SFPD higher-ups recommended no discipline at all for Sgt. Justin Erb, the officer who shot and killed Jessica Williams as she drove her car in his direction. Initially, the DPA recommended firing the sergeant. 

Paul Henderson, the executive director of the DPA, said in June that the SFPD’s recommendation forced the DPA to make a deal with Erb’s lawyers and the chief. After discussions, the DPA recommended a 45-day suspension to the Police Commission to secure an admission of wrongdoing. 

“While DPA believed this case merited termination, the DPA weighed the risk of exoneration at trial with the ability to secure a plea,” Henderson said. 

Erb sat out his 45 days and remains with the SFPD. 

The new study is a rare glimpse into police discipline in San Francisco — an opaque process often concealed by police department policy and special privileges afforded to California police officers. 

As revealed by the study, officers often receive light punishments for misconduct or no punishment at all. In many cases, however, the chief does not need to lower the punishment for officers. The DPA’s disciplinary recommendations are most often light. 

Although the DPA did not provide exact percentages, the recommended discipline is overwhelmingly “written reprimands” to officers who fail to activate their body-worn cameras, decline to write police reports, and fail to properly investigate crimes.

Over the last two and a half years, it recommended discipline severe enough for Police Commission review 10 times and recommend termination three times. One was in the case of Erb, whose punishment was reduced. The second case involved an officer who “used excessive force on the suspect, failed to initially report his use of force, and failed to activate his body-worn camera.” The third recommendation was for an officer who “responded positively” to a racist text message sent by a sergeant, quite possibly one of the officers implicated in the “Textgate” scandal. 

The latter two are still awaiting a decision by the Police Commission. 

But no matter the severity of the case or the discipline, the outcome is generally favorable to the police officer.

For example, in 2019 the DPA concluded that a police officer who “repeatedly struck the subject’s head with the same hand he was using to hold the handcuffs” during a struggle used unnecessary force and recommended a five-day suspension.

Although the chief agreed with the misconduct charges, he lessened the suspension to one day. 

In another case, the DPA concluded that a police officer “detained, searched, and arrested an individual without cause” and recommended a three-day suspension. The chief disagreed with the DPA and imposed no discipline whatsoever. 

In 2018, the DPA concluded that Sgt. Flint Paul who, in July, 2017, caused a skateboarder bombing down Dolores Street to fall and sustain major injuries, should receive a three-day suspension. 

The chief disagreed, and the officer received no discipline. Incidentally, in July of this year, the city agreed to pay $275,000 to the skateboarder to settle his lawsuit against Paul. 

San Francisco Police Department spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak said in a statement that “the Chief considers the totality of the circumstances including the involved member’s disciplinary history and may determine that an admonishment is more appropriate, especially in cases of a member’s first infraction and consistent with progressive discipline.”

Admonishments are “non-punitive” warnings and could be represented as “no discipline” in official reports like the DPA’s study, he said. “Admonishments often include retraining, are still part of the member’s disciplinary record and could be referenced should the member commit future policy violations.” 

However, it’s unclear how many “admonishments” the chief gives out as opposed to no discipline. “Perhaps DPA can help you clarify what goes into their report(s),” he said in an email when asked about the distinction. 

Nevertheless, Andraychak said, “The goal of the process is a fair, progressive and consistent disciplinary system.” 

And responding to the 15 percent of unknown cases, Andraychak said the SFPD is working to “improve the communications process between our organizations” and working to create “internal procedures to streamline the process to ensure documents are sent to DPA in a timely manner.”   

Asked about what appeared to be light punishments for the improper conduct, Henderson, the DPA director, said the disciplinary recommendations conformed to standards of many police departments and, at times, went beyond them. I am moving the standard,” Henderson said. “I have moved the standard.”

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