After a seven-month vacancy on the San Francisco Police Commission, a committee of three supervisors appeared on the brink of recommending a Latinx candidate, then stopped short and decided instead to wait another week.
The vacancy on the seven-member board opened in April after Petra DeJesus retired. She held one of three seats filled by the Board of Supervisors.
Today, the Rules Committee of the Board of Supervisors heard from four contenders for the seat, two of whom, according to the committee chair Aaron Peskin, “rise to the top.”
Those hopefuls are Jesús Gabriel Yáñez, a Mission District community advocate with a career in violence prevention and social service, and attorney David Rizk, an assistant federal public defender who serves on the BART Police oversight board.
Both have strong support from different groups.
“Oftentimes, city commissions are for political appointees or those who are ready to enter a political career,” said Valerie Tulier-Laiwa, Latino Task Force co-chair. “Jesus Yáñez is very grassroots … and does not have an ulterior motive or agenda, except to be fair and to bring a voice to the commission.”
Meanwhile, two members of the San Francisco Bar Association, Julie Traun and Rebecca Young, as well as Samara Marion, former policy director of the Department of Police Accountability, support Rizk. All three have been heavily involved in the efforts to move police reform.
“David was an instrumental participant in these really relentless meetings that ultimately resulted in the use of force policy that if you look throughout the state, it actually set the standard,” Marion said. When the police union “did everything to stop it from being put in place,” Marion said, Rizk’s involvement was “vital” to the policy’s ultimate passage.
After hearing from the candidates and numerous public commenters, the committee seemed to be on the brink of recommending Yáñez for the seat, although Supervisors Peskin, Connie Chan and Rafael Mandelman expressed support or openness to both Yáñez and Rizk eventually joining the commission when more seats open in the spring.
The supervisors appeared conflicted in making a decision immediately. Supervisor Rafael Mandelman expressed appreciation for Rizk’s experience, but also said that “either of these candidates would be great.”
Supervisor Peskin also said he “would like to have our cake and eat it too,” and bring both Yáñez and Rizk onto the commission, but said he was “100 percent okay” with selecting Yáñez today, per Chan’s suggestion.
However, Chan, who appeared to be in favor of going ahead with Yáñez because of his “on-the-ground” community and cultural experience, pushed to take another week to decide.
If the committee comes to a decision next week, the chosen nominee will be presented to the Board of Supervisors for approval on Dec. 14. The appointee would serve the remainder of a four-year term, ending in April, 2025.
Yáñez was formerly a program director for Instituto Familiar de la Raza, where he led the Youth Services Department and provided court advocacy, clinical services, and outreach in partnership with the SFPD, San Francisco General Hospital, and other community-based organizations. This program eventually expanded to serve neighborhoods across the city.
If nominated, he would be the second Latinx representative on the commission, which is tasked with setting policy for the Police Department and hearing cases of misconduct.
“My whole career has been devoted to creating alternatives, and ensuring that community voice is being included in the different processes that our city has in order to create public safety,” Yáñez said during today’s hearing. He emphasized a need for a trauma-informed approach to policing and training in de-escalation.
Living at 16th and Capp streets, near facilities offering homeless and mental health services, Yáñez noted the positive street interactions he’s seen lately as a result of policing alternatives like the Street Crisis Response Team, compared with others with police that escalated unnecessarily.
He was once a community mental health specialist, served on then-Mayor Gavin Newsom’s working group to create a citywide violence prevention plan, and participated on an advisory board to create protocols for the SFPD on juvenile detentions along with the Public Defenders, District Attorney’s office, and Police Department.
Yáñez, a Mexican immigrant, also emphasized a need for better communication between the immigrant population and the Police Department to make the community feel more comfortable reaching out to police when needed.
Rizk, in addition to working as an assistant public defender, also serves as the chair and District 8 representative on the BART Police Department Citizen Review Board, which hears misconduct cases and works on policy for BART Police – similar to the role of the Police Commission for the SFPD.
In his role as assistant public defender, Rizk said he has “seen hundreds of searches, arrests, investigations, good and bad, and I’m very aware of the impact and the benefits of law enforcement in the way that they interact with the community.”
He is also the director of the Bar Association’s board of directors and serves on its Criminal Justice Task Force, a group of lawyers, judges, and law enforcement. While working with the Bar Association, Rizk pushed against putting tasers in the hands of police officers, and was involved in updating the Police Department’s use-of-force and body-worn camera policy, changes against which the San Francisco police union fought for years.
Rizk said he believes the mandate of the Police Commission is to create “policies that preserve life and promote trust between police agencies and the communities they serve.” He seemingly lamented the shortage of police officers in California, and said that policing “needs to be a profession that people continue to look up to and aspire to.”
Several community members voiced their support for Yáñez as a trusted member of the Latino community. Calls came in during public comment from members of various community-based organizations such as the Latino Task Force, the Latinx Democratic Club, Horizons Unlimited and Sunset Youth Services.
District 9 Supervisor Hillary Ronen also submitted a letter expressing her support for Yáñez. “For decades, Jesús Yáñez has advocated for best practice interventions,” Ronen wrote, “to address the systemic issues that contribute to disproportionate minority confinement and has applied community-driven restorative justice solutions in partnership with institutional stakeholders to help keep our neighborhoods safe.”
The Police Commission currently has six of its seven seats filled, after the recent mayoral appointment of attorney Max Carter-Oberstone. While the mayor is required to have at least one of her four appointees be a retired judge or attorney with trial experience, the Board of Supervisors has no such requirement.
Even so, most of the commission is filled with attorneys: Both board-appointed commissioners Cindy Elias and John Hamasaki are lawyers, while Mayor London Breed’s appointees include attorneys Jim Byrne and last week’s arrival Max Carter-Oberstone, Board of Equalization member and former supervisor Malia Cohen, and labor advocate Larry Yee.