The San Francisco Police Department today unilaterally withdrew from an agreement with the District Attorney’s office, causing tonight’s Police Commission meeting to break into a heated shouting match between a commissioner and the police chief.
With fingers pointed at Zoom screens, one commissioner accused the police chief of poisoning the jury ahead of a police officer’s criminal trial.
It is a “clear case of tampering with a jury,” Police Commissioner John Hamasaki said at the meeting, referring to Scott’s move. The police chief, he added, was putting out “propaganda” through a “PR campaign” designed to get around a gag order in an upcoming trial.
Earlier this afternoon, Police Chief Bill Scott terminated the memorandum of understanding between the DA’s office and the Police Department that outlines protocols for the DA’s office to investigate instances of police shootings, in-custody deaths, and uses of force.
The nearly 3-year-old agreement, renewed in July 2021, makes the DA the lead investigator into any alleged criminal violations by officers during certain incidents, separate from the SFPD’s own administrative investigation.
If the agreement is terminated, the DA may no longer get briefed by the SFPD on which officers were involved in an incident, who the witnesses may have been, or what evidence was found.
The DA may not even be notified of a police shooting or in-custody death at all, as it is currently the SFPD’s role to alert the DA’s office to such cases.
Scott, in a letter addressed to DA Chesa Boudin today, terminated the agreement, expressing concerns about court testimony provided by DA Investigator Magen Hayashi last Thursday. Hayashi testified that she was pressured by the DA’s office to withhold information during an investigation of SFPD Officer Terrance Stangel’s beating of Dacari Spiers in 2019. Opening statements in Stangel’s criminal trial begin Monday.
In a Jan. 27 hearing, Hayashi said that the DA’s office pressured her to leave out exculpatory evidence, but struggled to specify exactly what that evidence was.
The presiding judge, San Francisco Superior Court Judge Teresa Caffese, ultimately expressed doubts during that hearing that anything exculpatory — anything that would have actually cleared Stangel of wrongdoing or altered the course of the case — was actually withheld.
“Obviously, if the DA’s office did wrong, if they concealed evidence … then, yes, there should be sanctions and ramifications about that,” Caffese said.
After asking Hayashi several times what relevant evidence was withheld, Caffese concluded, “I don’t think there’s any more or other evidence that was exculpatory as to this defendant that would change the course of the defense.”
Nonetheless, Supervisor Catherine Stefani spoke out at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting against what she called a potentially “criminal” obstruction of justice, and pushed successfully to delay the city’s $700,000 settlement with Spiers that was up for a vote.
DA spokesperson Rachel Marshall said Wednesday in a statement that “it is disappointing but no coincidence SFPD chose to withdraw from this agreement during the first-ever trial against an on-duty San Francisco police officer for an unlawful beating.”
Marshall referred to recent cases where dubious SFPD reporting came to light, including a fatal police shooting less than two weeks ago, and recently dropped charges against a man who was brutally beaten by officers. She noted the MOU was in place to ensure “police use-of-force incidents would be independently investigated, so that officers who inflicted unlawful violence would be held accountable.”
Scott, meanwhile, defended the move, saying he had the authority under the terms of the agreement to terminate it.
“If anybody wants to question my commitment to oversight and accountability, look at the record of my commitment, of making that MOU happen in the first place,” Scott said.
But the “spirit” of the agreement, Scott said, was based on “fairness, transparency, cooperation, and an agreement that works for all concerned parties — including the police officers.”
Scott’s letter accused the DA’s office of an “ongoing practice” of “withholding and concealing information and evidence the SFPD is entitled to.”
He did not offer any further examples.
During public comment, John Crew, a former attorney with the ACLU, condemned the chief’s decision to terminate an agreement meant to allow the elected DA to enforce the law, especially without notifying the commission first.
“I have no understanding of why that is the sort of decision that would be made unilaterally,” Crew said. “This sort of stunt to interfere with law enforcement in this town should not be accepted, and I hope this commission will intervene.”
The commissioners appeared to have just learned of the termination in the minutes before the this evening’s meeting. Scott’s decision was not an official agenda item. Aside from Hamasaki, no commissioners commented on the chief’s announcement. The item may be discussed at next week’s meeting.
Marshall said that, regardless of the SFPD’s participation in the MOU, “We’re going to continue to do our job, to investigate and, when appropriate, prosecute cases.”
The MOU will terminate within 15 business days if a resolution between the SFPD and the DA’s office is not reached before then.
Read a transcription of the hearing in which DA Investigator Magen Hayashi testified on Jan. 27, 2022