While the San Francisco Police Department praises its collaboration with advocates of police reform in developing policies, those same groups — the Department of Police Accountability and the Police Commission — say that they have been shunted to the side and, in some cases, excluded altogether.
“The ‘collaborative’ nature of the police department’s process is that they pick and choose who’s at the table,” Paul Henderson, the executive director of the Department of Police Accountability, told Mission Local in September. “And then we get a surprise whenever the department decides that, ‘Here’s the policy.’”
And at Wednesday night’s Police Commission meeting, some of the appointed board members were baffled by the SFPD’s status updates of different policies being reviewed by working groups, and disputed the accuracy of the presentation.
Commission Vice President Cindy Elias is specifically tasked with overseeing the policy update for the department’s Serious Incident Review Board, which would review and investigate incidents like discharges of police firearms. And Wednesday night’s presentation caught her off guard: “It says ‘currently in a working group phase’ … there is no working group, because I don’t know about it.”
Police Chief Bill Scott assured her that the Department of Police Accountability is part of the working group, calling the policy “mainly an internal process that is really not open to the general public,” implying that Elias was not privy to this internal process.
But, as the commission’s charge is to oversee and set policy for the Police Department, Commissioner Elias seemed unaware that she would be excluded from the working group.
And the Department of Police Accountability seems to have been excluded, too: Elias said that “when [she] had asked DPA for a status on the working group, they were unaware of the Serious Incident Review Board working group.”
The SFPD has long been encouraged to maintain a close and transparent working relationship with the two groups responsible for keeping it in check, and the SFPD maintains it is currently in compliance with these recommendations.
But it appears there has been an ongoing breakdown in communication: multiple commissioners said that they were not included in the so-called collaborative policy revision process with SFPD. They asked for more clarity into who was involved.
This is not the first time the police department has touted its collaborative efforts with the Department of Police Accountability, while the Department of Police Accountability has in turn claimed it’s being left in the dark.
The police department tried last month to get approval for a new search warrant policy, which it said was a collaboration with the Department of Police Accountability, but instead was met with resistance, and the policy is still on hold today.
Henderson from the Department of Police Accountability told Mission Local in September that, while his department gave some input on the policy over the years, it was insufficient and not truly collaborative.
Henderson acknowledged that the Department of Police Accountability submitted language for the SFPD to use in the search warrant policy at different points over the past two years, but said the final product came “out of the blue.”
The first time he saw the new policy, Henderson said, was when it was posted the week of Sept. 8, just days before the commission was originally slated to vote on it.
At Wednesday’s meeting, there appeared to be even more confusion between the SFPD, the commission, and the Department of Police Accountability about other policies being revised.
The Police Department’s social media policy was presented as “currently in working group phase,” but when Commission President Malia Cohen asked about it, Scott acknowledged that a working group had not yet been created.
Similarly, the SFPD’s presentation indicated it completed the first working group stage regarding its juvenile policy, but Cohen raised questions about the accuracy of this update.
“I was under the impression that the juvenile group hadn’t met in months,” she said. “But this page says it’s meeting.” Scott responded that an ongoing working group included about 13 entities including the District Attorney’s office and the Public Defender’s office.
But representatives from both the District Attorney’s and the Public Defender’s offices confirmed to Mission Local that they hadn’t been invited to a working group for the juvenile policy since April. The monthly meetings stopped suddenly and without explanation, said Patti Lee, managing attorney of the juvenile unit at the Public Defender’s office.
Elias, meanwhile, was clearly frustrated: “We’ve had these issues before with these kinds of reports, where it says things are happening and they’re really not,” she said, adding that such inconsistencies were counterproductive to building trust with the public.
Cohen asked for clarity into who is involved in the working groups for several policies under review, but Scott and the SFPD’s Catherine McGuire of the Strategic Management Bureau avoided going into detail.
The Department of Police Accountability’s new policy director, Janelle Caywood, said that her department had not been invited to any of the working groups that Cohen mentioned, which the SFPD did not confirm or deny. During her part of the presentation, Caywood asked for her organization to be involved in all working groups and to play a stronger role in forming working groups for the police department’s policy revisions.
Cohen pressed McGuire, who gave the SFPD’s part of the presentation, for an explanation about the potential inaccuracies and overplayed claims of collaboration, but McGuire was tight-lipped. She said that “there are excuses for everything” and that she would confer with her colleagues.
Community pushback leading up to the Sept. 8 vote on the search warrant policy led to a reluctant delay of one week. Although Cohen and Scott appeared ready to pass the policy, members of the Public Defender’s office, specifically, brought up issues with the proposed order’s language, content, and their own lack of opportunity to provide input.
Then, on Sept. 15, the item was removed from the agenda. An announcement on the Police Commission website later said the search warrant policy was tentatively on the agenda for the next commission meeting, on Oct. 6, but the topic was not discussed yesterday.
The SFPD has not responded to questions about its plans for the general order, or whether it will consider the feedback it has received. Commissioners Cohen and Elias did not respond to a request for comment on the search warrant policy.
Commissioner John Hamasaki told Mission Local last month that he found the process “incredibly disappointing,” adding that “there’s no point rushing through a policy that has holes in it. It doesn’t do anyone any good.”
“For some reason, inside of the [police] department, there seems there was a rush to pass it,” Hamasaki said. “I don’t know where that originated from, but with such an important policy … I think it’s incredibly important that we are careful, thoughtful, and importantly, give the community and stakeholders an opportunity to review the final product, propose changes, propose amendments.”