SFPD patrol car
Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

The Department of Police Accountability this week charged that the San Francisco Police Department doesn’t prioritize policy updates, allowing outdated policies to languish for years, and refuses to accept help from the DPA when offered. 

In a rare Police Commission discussion of stonewalling by the SFPD, put on the agenda at the request of the Department of Police Accountability, both policy director Janelle Caywood and executive director Paul Henderson spoke out about the police department’s failure to update its policies on Wednesday. The commission appeared to take it seriously. 

“SFPD has a long history of failing to update its general orders in a timely manner, and this is not a problem that was created overnight,” said Caywood. She noted that the U.S. Department of Justice, in its 2016 report outlining 272 recommendations to improve the SFPD, had recommended the department improve its “overly protracted” process to update its policies. 

“Here we are, six years later, and the problem of languishing general orders continues to this day,” Caywood said. She questioned the department’s finding that it is in compliance with the DOJ’s recommendation to implement a more efficient policy update process. 

DPA head Henderson said that although critical policy reforms had been discussed and submitted to the police department, discipline still cannot be enforced until policies are officially adopted, meaning that officers engaging in known “bad behavior” cannot be held accountable. 

Nearly 60 percent of the department’s 121 current general orders, covering topics such as “Drug Use by Members” and “Rights of Onlookers,” were adopted in the 1990s. Another 16 percent haven’t seen a revision in over 10 years. 

Since the start of 2022, two new or revised policies have gone into effect. In 2021, three policies were adopted by the police department. 

In January, the Police Commission adopted a policy guiding the SFPD’s policy development process. Commissioners touted it as faster and more transparent, and a long time in the making: “[Department general orders] that often time go and linger in space, that’s no longer going to happen,” said commission Vice President Cindy Elias at the time. 

But even this policy has been stalled by the same process it hopes to fix, and has yet to be adopted by the SFPD, six months later. 

Caywood added that her policy team of two had provided “a ton of recommendations” in 2020 and 2021, after the SFPD asked the Department of Police Accountability to expedite recommendations on 54 general orders. The department had led the DPA to believe it was going to update those policies “in short order,” she said. 

“Sadly, this turned out to be a hurry-up-and-wait situation,” Caywood said, pointing to a long list of policies that DPA provided recommendations for, several of which had seen no movement in over two years. 

Chief William Scott blamed reform work, staffing shortages and Covid-19 for the delays, and said the mayor’s newly passed budget, which provides funding for civilian professional staff, would allow the department to better focus on policy work, instead of forcing sworn officers to split their time between patrol and office work.

(Later in the meeting, a commissioner determined that the SFPD has six members working on policy, between the Strategic Management Bureau, the Written Directives Unit, and a subject matter expert, while the Department of Police Accountability has two.)

And despite slowdowns, Scott insisted that policies are being worked on. “It’s not like no work is getting done,” he said. 

Critics of the Department of Police Accountability have said it hasn’t done enough to keep the police department accountable; Caywood and Henderson periodically make passing comments during Police Commission meetings about how to improve the SFPD’s or the commission’s processes. But they are not particularly forceful, and the commission often seems disinterested. 

Meanwhile, Henderson has maintained that the DPA has limited power to compel the SFPD to follow its recommendations and needs support from the Police Commission, which does have that power.

This time, however, the DPA didn’t back down and asked the commission to assist in putting pressure on the department to set and meet deadlines for policy updates.

“I understand that it takes a minute to rewrite policy, but I’m sorry, it doesn’t take two years. It just doesn’t,” said Caywood, who is typically soft-spoken with mild and infrequent criticisms of the police. She called any staffing issues a “distraction” in an unusually firm stance: “DPA regularly writes 20-page reports in a week, and so I just don’t accept that that’s the reason. I think it’s a priority issue.”

In turn, the few commissioners who spoke during the agenda item put their weight behind the DPA. Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone called the DPA’s presentation “illuminating” and said that there should be movement on DGOs from week to week. 

“Our job on this commission is to issue regulations with the force of law,” Carter-Oberstone said, “and when the regulated entity can essentially grind that to a halt, … that calls into question the system of democracy that we have here.” 

Carter-Oberstone acknowledged the commission’s responsibility to demand accountability from the police department. “A big part of the fault lies with this commission. We should be more vigilant about this,” he said. 

Commissioner Elias agreed to have the police chief report monthly on the status of in-progress department general orders. 

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim over eight years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. Revised policies require long-term senior SFPD officers to change their behaviors or run a risk of being called to account. Old dogs don’t want to learn new tricks. Especially when they know for a fact their old tricks are already perfect.

  2. If SFPD insists on not doing their job in a expeditious manner then we have a good argument for defunding these foot draggers.

  3. Where is Samara Marion when you need her? She was a force of nature at DPA, fair and professional. Kept things moving, never giving up and held SFPD accountable. Probably just got worn out from working for the H’s, Hicks and Henderson.

  4. DPA. Bless their little hearts. Good to hear the police commission is picking this up, there’s plenty of rot in the PD that needs to be turned over, might as well start with this.
    Thank you for the detailed report.