Two days after blasting the police department and City Hall for their unwillingness to change SFPD’s “culture of corruption and brutality,” outgoing police commissioner John Hamasaki questioned the oversight board’s commitment to carrying out reforms.
Changing the police department’s culture requires “a strong chief and a strong commission,” Hamasaki told Mission Local in an interview Wednesday. “I’m not sure where we are on that right now.”
In a blistering Twitter thread Hamasaki, a criminal defense lawyer, announced on Monday that he would not seek a second term on the police commission, saying that he had “lost any hope I had for SFPD.”
The last straw for Hamasaki came last month, when Police Chief William Scott tried to unilaterally end an agreement that allowed the District Attorney’s Office to investigate incidents involving police use of force.
Hamasaki described Scott’s effort, which he believed was made under pressure from the police union, as “an attack on the justice system.”
Making matters worse, Hamasaki said, his fellow commissioners refused to join him in his push to compel the chief to abide by the agreement temporarily.
“This is where we need to be able to assert ourselves,” Hamasaki said in Wednesday’s interview, noting that the commission’s oversight role was also on the line. “What are we gonna do when it’s a harder call?”
On Twitter, Hamasaki said Monday that while the commission has done some good work, “We have failed at changing the culture.”
Hamasaki’s announcement came days after Malia Cohen, who shut down a heated argument about the use-of-force agreement during a February commission meeting, announced her resignation from the oversight board. Cohen, a former San Francisco supervisor, is running for state controller.
At last week’s commission meeting, she said the city “deserves some credit” for making progress towards police reform.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” she said, referencing a Chinese proverb.
Hamasaki had a far less optimistic view when speaking with Mission Local. He described trying to change the department’s culture as a “Sisyphean” task.
Before joining the commission, Haamasaki said he was told: “You can have the best rules, policies, guidelines on the books, but if you can’t change the culture, it doesn’t mean that much.”
Hamasaki unleashed his Twitter thread Monday afternoon, shortly after a jury acquitted SFPD Officer Terrance Stangel for beating an unarmed black man in 2019 with a baton.
In that thread, Hamasaki referenced the verdict while raging against Chief Scott’s attempt to undo the use-of-force agreement.
“Instead of allowing justice and accountability, SFPD, once again, determined that they were above the law,” Hamasaki tweeted. “Years of reform efforts, oversight by the US DOJ and Cal DOJ, out the window. To protect the right of SFPD officers to beat the shit out of Black people. Reform has failed.”
An outspoken critic of the police department, Hamasaki told Mission Local that Scott’s efforts to end the use-of-force agreement showed that the police union “had ultimately prevailed,” adding that it was no easy task to take on the powerful group. The State Attorney General’s Office brokered a last-minute deal between the DA’s Office and the police department at the end of February, extending the agreement through May 20.
Mayor London Breed must replace Cohen within 60 days. The Board of Supervisors, which is responsible for replacing Hamasaki, has no such deadline.
Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who sits on the board’s Rules Committee that will select Hamasaki’s replacement, called the battle over the use-of-force agreement “unfortunate” and said it “was frustrating for everybody.”
Peskin said he is looking for “mature commissioners …This is not the time for bomb-throwing or tweeting.” The last board-appointed seat remained vacant for nearly a year, but Peskin doesn’t anticipate it taking as long to fill Hamasaki’s seat.
Mason Lee, a spokesperson for Mayor London Breed, said the mayor “is talking to community members and leaders” about possible replacements for Cohen, “to make sure that her nominee has strong community ties and understands the needs of our diverse communities.”
Cohen was appointed after the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee rejected two earlier Breed appointments.
With Hamasaki and Cohen’s departures, the police commission will be composed of mostly new faces. Of the remaining five commissioners, only Vice President Cindy Elias held her position prior to 2021.
Though being a commissioner can range from being a part-time to a full-time job, commissioners receive $100 monthly stipends for their service on the civilian oversight board.
“Having that institutional knowledge loss is hard, but I’m for term limits,” Hamasaki said. “New blood is good, fresh ideas are good.” But for the little progress accomplished, he said that serving on the commission is a “ridiculous, inordinate amount of work.”