In explosive testimony before the Police Commission on Wednesday night, a former San Francisco Police Department implicit bias trainer described a culture of deep-rooted racism in the police force that, at times, appeared insurmountable and hard-wired into the department’s DNA.
“There was little to no room, many times, to have surface level, and/or factual conversations about the role race and racism have played in the evolution of law enforcement,” Dante King, the former trainer, who is now the director of workforce equity at the Department of Public Health, told the commission. “Instead, there was repeated pushback, denial, reinforced narratives about Black people as criminals by nature.”
King was invited to the Police Commission to flesh out the observations he conveyed in an email to Chief Bill Scott in April, 2019, that the police department harbored extreme “anti-Black” sentiment. The email was leaked to the San Francisco Examiner and published by the paper in February — an event that King said led him to lose a promotion at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, where he then worked.
King said that during the period he was a Department of Human Resources HR manager providing training at the SFPD academy, from the summer of 2016 to the spring of 2019, he trained more than 1,000 SFPD staff, including captains, sergeants, lieutenants, members of the command staff, civilian staff, and new recruits.
King’s personal website explains his approach to bias training and lists UCSF and the Oakland Unified School District among his clients.
He said he observed and experienced racism, misogyny, ageism, and other forms of implicit or explicit prejudice in 60 to 70 percent of the SFPD members he trained. “There was a lack of empathy, understanding, and absolutely no room for discussing the role policing has played in oppressing Black people for decades and centuries,” King said.
He gave examples.
One sergeant, who he did not name, said that he would “100 percent detain a Black person before ever detaining a white person,” because “Black people are the ones who commit crimes,” King recalled the sergeant saying during a class.
“There was a session when explicit, racist statements were made about Black children and how they are inherently predisposed to commit crimes,” King said. He said that the statement caused a shouting match among groups of officers in the room.
Another time, King observed a group of seven to 10 white male officers bemoan the police department’s hiring of nonwhites and promotion of female officers. “The men charged that the department had elected to ‘hire for diversity,’ rather than ‘promote competent, qualified individuals,’” King said.
In many cases, his staff’s attempts to expose the flaws in their reasoning were dismissed or not believed, King said.
“The entirety of this two-and-a-half-year experience led my employees and I to understand and conclude that there are both covert and underlying tenets of disdain, resentment, disrespect, and anger towards Black people overall, and especially Black people who reside in San Francisco’s institutionally and structurally racist impoverished communities,” King said.
“My employees and I got the impression that in some cases, there are individuals on the force who have enjoyed having a career that allows them to patrol, exert power over, and harm Black people,” he added.
When bringing up these issues with his colleagues at the Department of Human Resources — which is now facing its own reckoning over its purportedly lax and negligent attitude toward racial discrimination complaints — King said he and his staff were brushed off.
“Upon raising these types and other concerns to the Department of Human Resources Director and Workforce Development Director, the response we received was, ‘at least you are getting the officers to admit to their biases,’” King told the commission.
And working in such an environment with the police officers was emotionally taxing on King and his fellow trainers, he said. King recalled that he and his team were having trouble sleeping at night and sought counseling to address the emotional impact of the “blatant racist, and racially biased, anti-Black, and misogynistic comments and behaviors displayed by training participants.”
The commissioners appeared stunned.
Most pointedly, Vice President Damali Taylor referred to King’s observation that 60 to 70 percent of the officers he trained harbored a degree of racial bias. “Any percentage is not okay,” she said. “But that percentage feels overwhelming and unfixable.”
But King made a number of recommendations, including implementing scenario-based implicit bias training, giving meaningful discipline to police officers who display biased behavior, and creating regular forums where Black and Brown communities can provide input on how to improve policing.
“I do think that it’s fixable,” King said to Taylor. “But I think that there has to be an acknowledgment and agreement that there are issues that exist.”
King also described the fallout of his April 2019 email to Chief Bill Scott describing extreme “anti-Black” sentiment in the SFPD that he observed during the implicit bias training sessions. That message also included images of a blog post by a retired Sacramento sheriff’s deputy mocking SFPD Capt. Yulanda Williams’ appearance and arguing her hair prevented her from doing her job.
The San Francisco Examiner obtained the email by February 2020, and King said its publication had grave repercussions for his personal and professional life.
He insisted he did not leak the email. “The message was intended to be confidential and was not intended to be shared with anyone else other than Chief Scott, Director of Human Resources, and Deputy Director of Human Resources,” King said.
In response to the letter’s publication, Chief Bill Scott wrote an email to staff that King “maligned” the SFPD in the leaked letter. “I am deeply disappointed that, in this case, that safe space for our members was violated,” Scott wrote on Feb. 13. “We cannot allow this incident to undermine the intent and value of this training and the hard work we are doing.”
King said he was “mortified” by the response and found that Scott’s response “lacked integrity.”
During the meeting Wednesday, Scott apologized for not reaching out to King. He said the letter spurred him to take action on several policies, including a policy banning the publication of booking photos.
“I apologize, because my email was never meant to hurt you in any way,” Scott said.
But King’s trouble following the letter did not stop with the chief. King said that he was on track to be hired as the director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s Race, Equity and Inclusion Division. But the transit agency’s director, Jeffery Tumlin, rescinded the offer following the publication of the email and Scott’s email to staff, King said.
King said Tumlin told him on Feb. 14, 2020, that King had “broken the trust of employees at the SFMTA by writing the email” and that it would take time to rebuild that trust. “He blamed me for writing the email and stated explicitly that, even though he believed me when I expressed I had not leaked the email, the email would [not] have been leaked to the press if I had not written it.”
A message to Tumlin was not immediately returned.
Following King’s testimony, he broke down in tears. “This has been extremely hard in ways that no one would imagine,” he said, appearing to address Scott. “And I’m glad on some levels that you took notice of [the April letter], but I really wish you would have called me. I didn’t mean you any harm.”