While the SFPD seems to have picked up the pace on a years-long reform effort after criticism from the state on its slow progress, the last stragglers on the list of 272 reform recommendations from the Department of Justice may still take up to four years to implement, according to the SFPD’s monthly update to the Police Commission on Wednesday.
The Police Commission seems to have taken a more laissez-faire approach to holding the SFPD accountable for the reforms first presented in 2016, but this timeline, while unsurprising, is problematic as ever, according to former ACLU police practices attorney John Crew.
“The big picture is SFPD seems much more committed to being perceived as accomplishing significant police reform, than actually doing the most important pieces of it,” Crew said of the department’s update.
The Collaborative Reform Initiative comprises 272 recommendations made to the SFPD in a 2016 U.S. Justice Department report. Oversight of the department’s progress was passed to the California Department of Justice after the federal justice department withdrew from the program under then President Trump.
In the past year, over 120 reforms reached “substantial compliance,” and the total number implemented and compliant has crept up this summer to 193 – progress announced Wednesday night before the Police Commission. Another 60 await external approval. The reforms cover five categories: use of force, bias, community policing, accountability, and recruitment, hiring and retention.
“The work is really right now resting with our collaborative reform partners,” said Catherine McGuire, Executive Director of the SFPD’s Strategic Management Bureau, referring to the 59 reforms awaiting external validation from the California Department of Justice, and one that will be reviewed by Hillard Heintze before moving on to CAL DOJ. “In May, 11 recommendations moved to substantial compliance and in June, six recommendations did.”
That said, not all the work rests with the partners. Nineteen of the recommendations remain “in progress” (not implemented) on the SFPD’s timeline, according to last night’s presentation.
Spanning from one to four years, the timeline gives the impression that several critical recommendations like regular employee evaluations and a commitment “to reviewing and understanding the reasons for the disparate use of deadly force” will not be implemented anytime soon. And the timeline for the reforms has already been pushed back repeatedly, so these estimates provided by the SFPD are uncertain.
Recommendation 27.5 suggested that “all officers and supervisors should be fully trained on bias and cultural competency within 18 months of the release of this report.” That reform reached substantial compliance in March, nearly five years later. In recommendation 39.4, the SFPD was encouraged to analyze its training needs and develop a training plan within 9 months of the original report in 2016. Today, this reform is still awaiting external validation.
The police department, Crew said, doesn’t show any sense of urgency in getting all of the reforms completed. “It’s all decontextualized from how a non-reformed police agency actually impacts people on the street, impacts communities, impacts generations of San Franciscans.”
The three reforms expected to take the longest are all in one category: in the next three to four years, the SFPD expects to start addressing Finding 20, that “The SFPD does not capture sufficient data on arrest and use of force incidents to support strong scientific analysis.” In other words, it’s difficult to assess whether use-of-force incidents happen more often among racial minorities.
When asked why it will take so long to implement the remaining reforms, McGuire said, “That planning process has to happen first, and then there’s a procurement process, and then there’s an implementation process.” She stressed the need to ensure the system is “implemented really well, addresses the needs of our department and other departments that we know that our systems integrate with.”
“This whole idea that you need perfect data before you can act on the issue of disparities is just a smokescreen for not acting at all,” Crew said.
All three recommendations addressing Finding 79 also appear on the timeline as not being complete for another year and a half. This one states the “Evaluation of employee performance is not an institutionalized practice in the SFPD.” The reform ideas in this area aren’t novel: The reforms call for things like personnel evaluations twice a year, and use of performance evaluations as a factor in promotions.
Crew called the reforms on employee evaluations “both basic and extremely significant,” saying, “The culture of this department is to not see those as problems, is to not intervene … if [employee evaluations were] a priority, it wouldn’t be 2021 and it’s on the to-do list.”
Back when the reform initiative was introduced in 2016, Crew and others, including then-Public Defender Jeff Adachi, warned that collaborative reform wouldn’t work in San Francisco, pushing instead for a “pattern or practice” federal or state authority which could hold the department legally accountable for change.
This type of intervention might have been imminent in San Francisco while it was making slow progress on the 272 reforms, but the Trump administration “gutted” the practice. Now, it’s up to the city and its officials to push for change.
In the past month, three recommendations in the bias category reached substantial compliance, and 23 are awaiting validation from CAL DOJ, making it the second category after recruitment with no outstanding action required on the SFPD’s part. Meanwhile, the use of force, community policing, and accountability categories each have a handful of recommendations lagging.
And despite apparent progress, sustainability and accountability for the implemented reforms is still up in the air, as president of the Police Commission Malia Cohen said Wednesday. “Without sustainability, this is just kind of like a check-the-box exercise.”
Review and improvement loops are often part of the compliance measures for the different recommendations that can ensure improvements are happening, and Cohen noted that “CAL DOJ flagged it for not really having a solid, thorough plan” for sustainability measures for the different reforms.
When asked how the progress on the reforms would be tracked by the SFPD, McGuire said an automated system that inventories and checks in on all those review loops is weeks away from being rolled out. To what extent this information will be made publicly available is unclear.