A day before the San Francisco Police Department’s Internal Affairs department found that Sgt. Michael Mellone should face a 10-day suspension for unnecessarily escalating a situation that led to Luis Gongora Pat being shot and killed in 2016, Mellone quit the SFPD.
Only days later and 45 miles away, Mellone started his first shift with the Antioch Police Department. He never received discipline as an SFPD officer but was nevertheless welcomed in Antioch with open arms.
But Mellone is not the only former SFPD police officer to quit before being disciplined in San Francisco — a maneuver that helps police officers dodge accountability, and perhaps a black mark on their record.
Since 2016, more than two dozen SFPD officers have done the same, including three this year alone, according to data collected by the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office.
In many of these cases, the officers faced much more serious discipline than Mellone; longer suspensions or terminations for serious offenses. Some of these serious offenses include, for example: “engaging in public acts of sexual intercourse in his assigned district while off duty,” “continued use of illegal narcotics,” and “possession of [a] firearm while intoxicated.”
No problem for the officers. After each of these cases, the officer resigned before the Police Commission could mete out discipline, according to commission records.
The effect is twofold. By resigning, a police officer can jump to another police force and undergo the screening process without the stain of a disciplinary action on their record.
Meanwhile, an officer leaving before a decision by the Police Commission also means they can dodge the state’s new transparency law for the release of records where dishonesty and sexual assault are involved. If the officer leaves, he or she avoids a final decision, and that final decision by the Police Commission is typically needed for the SFPD to release records showing those misconduct issues.
But the SFPD appears to be taking steps to address the problem. At a Jan. 6 Police Commission meeting, Chief Bill Scott laid out a previously undisclosed process for officers who resign with open disciplinary cases.
If an officer resigns before his or her hearing in front of the Police Commission — the seven-member board tasked with imposing serious discipline, such as long-term suspensions and terminations — the case is returned back to the chief to make a determination about whether the officer committed wrongdoing. In this case, the police chief would go with what he originally recommended to the Police Commission.
If the chief determines the officer did commit wrongdoing, the SFPD offers the police officer a chance to appeal the chief’s determination. Scott said the officer has 30 days to review the case files and make the appeal. If the appeal is lost, the misconduct becomes part of the officer’s record.
Commissioner John Hamasaki said in a recent interview that the process is relatively new. It required multiple legal memos clarifying whether it was even within San Francisco’s jurisdiction to continue investigations and make determinations regarding the misconduct of police officers who were no longer with the force.
Since joining the Police Commission three years ago, Hamasaki has often inquired about how the Police Commission should deal with such cases, and he received the same answer: “The Police Commission has no jurisdiction. There’s nothing you can do.”
But the city’s outlook recently changed, he said, and the informal policy, outlined by the chief in January, followed. Hamasaki said he believes it will create more accountability for police officers, make records more transparent to the public, and allow the Police Commission and the SFPD to better track misconduct.
“It’s a huge issue, because some of the misconduct that we’ve seen at the Police Commission has been extremely serious,” he said. And some officers were “retiring — and no-harm-no-foul. It was to me an intolerable state of affairs.”
The SFPD, meanwhile, contends that what changed were the requirements under SB 1421, the new law that makes some misconduct files — including serious use of force, sexual assault, and dishonesty — open for request.
For a case file concerning on-the-job sexual assault or dishonesty to be released, SFPD spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak said, the chief can make a determination about whether the officer is guilty, and then must provide the resigned officer with a chance to appeal. The SFPD is still ironing out the appeals process, Andraychak said.
Brian Cox, a deputy public defender and a close observer of SFPD reform, says the informal policy has its flaws.
For starters, he argued, there is no mandate that the police department continue investigations after an officer resigns. Chief Scott could “change his mind” about whether to continue the policy, he said, or “the next Chief could decline to let the discipline process play out.”
Moreover, he said, shifting final say over serious discipline from the Police Commission to the chief makes him “nervous.”
“If the point is to have civilian oversight for significant misconduct cases as the Charter clearly specifies,” Cox said, “why is the chief supplanting the commission’s authority?”