The Police Commission on Wednesday passed a sweeping revision to the San Francisco Police Department’s community policing policy, a major milestone in the SFPD’s journey toward honoring the reform recommendations handed down by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016.

The 12-page document lays out a roadmap for the police department to engage with community members, implement strategies that foster cooperation between police and communities, continually evaluate those strategies, and provide reports and data to indicate that they are working. Throughout the text is the constant reminder that police officers are “guardians” of the community, and not warriors pitted against it. 

“Our spirit and work is guided by a guardian mindset and we recognize that our role as protectors is rooted in empathy, understanding, and mutual respect,” states the second sentence of Police Commission document. 

Officers will now be “expected” to find time to participate in community events, build relationships, and “engage in positive interactions with the community whenever possible.” The policy also encourages district station captains to use foot beat and bicycle officers “as part of their strategy in building partnerships with the community.” 

The policy defines the role of the commander overseeing the Community Engagement Division, mandates regular “advisory forums” with community members, requires district captains to publish a weekly newsletter, and defines the attributes of town hall meetings called to address police shootings. The Community Engagement Division will serve as the liaison between victims of police shootings and the police department and will contact the family “as soon as practical after the incident,” per the policy. 

The unanimous Police Commission vote on the community policing policy means the SFPD has tackled one of the central policy reform recommendations by the U.S. Justice Department’s now-gutted Community Oriented Policing Services office. The SFPD in May also revised its “bias-free policing” policy, and made major revisions to its use-of-force policy in December, 2016. 

The five categories under which the DOJ made 272 recommendations were use of force, bias, community policing, hiring, and accountability. SFPD Chief Bill Scott said at a forum last week that most of the recommendations will be complete by spring of next year. 

“It was really a collaborative effort that made this a success,” said Deputy Chief David Lazar, who oversaw the working group that drafted the community policing policy. 

The working group received input from some 500 organizations, 100 police officers, and 50 city employees, Lazar said. It met 15 times over a two-year period ending in May, 2018. 

Julie Traun, a representative from the San Francisco Bar Association who regularly participated in the Community Policing Working Group, said during public comment that the working group led by Lazar “should serve as a model for all SFPD working groups and all cities.” 

“During its most active days, we had as many as 30 or 40 community members, ranging from homeless advocates, professors, psychologists, medical trauma doctors to the staunchest, most vocal critics of SFPD,” she said. “Together with officers, every voice was welcome. Every voice was heard. Every voice contributed to the amazing work undertaken and produced by this group.” 

Those positive strides, however, were dampened by the extended period of time the SFPD sat on the policy after the working group concluded two years ago. “We are extraordinarily frustrated by the delay and the concurrence process, which took well over a year with virtually no changes,” Traun said. “And we now fear the black hole of the meet-and-confer process.” 

Responding to Traun’s criticism, Lazar acknowledged that the policy fell by the wayside. He blamed a “transition in command,” his being promoted to deputy chief, and “other policies and procedures were coming forward … and some things were a priority.” 

“And as a result, we’re here today,” he said. 

Carolyn Thomas, a Castro resident, also consistently participated in the working group and spoke during public comment on Wednesday. She praised Lazar’s openness and the facilitation skills he employed during the working groups, but noted that the working group was not perfect. Some community members eventually became disillusioned with the process.

“We need to be inclusive of nontraditional groups,” Thomas said. “We need to meet them more than halfway because, frankly, they were not really willing to come to many of the meetings, and some people we lost along the way.” 

The policy will now head into a meet-and-confer session with the San Francisco Police Officers Association — and, as Traun noted, it’s unclear how long that will take. It became clear later during Wednesday’s meeting that revisions to the SFPD body-worn camera policy languished in meet-and-confer for two-and-a-half years without receiving substantial changes.  

Police Commission Vice President Damali Taylor said that only “mandatory subjects” of the community policing policy will be fair game for negotiations, though she did not specify what those were. 

Commissioner Cindy Elias requested an update on the process in the coming months. “Given the length of time that this has taken to come to us and to get it passed, I think the community needs to make sure that we have a really tight pulse on this,” she said. “So I’m going to ask to bring it back in two months” for a status update.

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