While the Department of Police Accountability has big bucks and a budget of some $10 million, San Francisco’s seven-member civilian Police Commission gets peanuts.
Nevertheless, it purportedly has far more power: To set policy for the police department, hear discipline cases, and mete out punishment.
Despite this authority, however, critics say the commission fails to assertively press for reform within the San Francisco Police Department. Moreover, they said, it is similarly weak in its support of the Department of Police Accountability, which it also oversees.
The Police Commission needs to be “much more visionary,” said Bill Ong Hing, a University of San Francisco professor and former police commissioner who left his seat in 2018, frustrated with the roadblocks and politics he faced on the commission.
Instead of “waiting and reacting,” Hing said, the commission should proactively try to push for change.
The Department of Police Accountability is tasked with auditing the police department. In the last couple of years, it has presented audits, including policy recommendations, to the Police Commission regarding police use of force approaches and First Amendment activities. The Police Commission then works on developing policies, in collaboration with the SFPD and other stakeholders. The process to implement a new policy, including negotiations with the police union, can take years.
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Former SFPD bias trainer Dante King told Mission Local that the ball is in the Police Commission’s court to actually follow up on those audits and policy recommendations. And, if the commission doesn’t use its weight to push along much-needed reforms, King said the mayor needs to step in.
“At the end of the day, DPA and all of those other city departments report to the mayor,” King said. But Mayor London Breed doesn’t seem to have “any focus or concern with shifting these outcomes.”
While some members of the Police Commission actively work to support reform efforts, others mostly sit quiet. Four of the seven commissioners are appointed by the mayor, and three by the Board of Supervisors. Often, the mayoral appointments fall into line with the mayor’s agenda.
That happened in the case of Malia Cohen, who had a successful track record of police reform while she was District 10 supervisor, and even worked on the legislation to create the Department of Police Accountability. But when she joined the Police Commission as a mayoral appointee in 2020 — and then became its president — her leadership provided little concrete action on police reform. Instead, others said, she tried to unify a splintered board.
At times, when policy issues came up, she appeared oddly uninterested or irritated.
Earlier this year, for example, commissioners raised questions and concerns about a report that showed glaring and ongoing racial disparities in traffic stops and uses of force. It was a report based on the legislation Cohen drafted as a city supervisor.
Instead of digging into the evidence of racial bias by the SFPD, Cohen, who resigned as commission president in March to run for state controller, hurried the discussion along.
She interrupted a fellow commissioner questioning the inequities to note that the chief had no answers, and had no data analyst. It was a stance that appeared to give the police chief a pass.
“I remember being frustrated: It’s always late, and then it’s incomplete, not helpful,” Cohen told Mission Local, referring to the reports and her reaction. She said the legislation’s reporting requirements were clear, but the SFPD was “not willing to comply” and provide adequate analysis of the data.
Policing expert Barbara Attard and others closely familiar with the Police Commission have suggested that the mayor’s majority on the board can, at times, sway the commission to act — or fail to.
Mayoral appointees Larry Yee and Jim Byrne have both sat on the commission for more than a year, and they rarely speak during commission meetings, let alone provide critical feedback to the SFPD or involve themselves in hot-button issues.
And last month, a divided Board of Supervisors approved the mayor’s latest appointment to the commission: artist Debra Walker, who has served on two other city commissions but has minimal experience with policing or criminal justice reform.
Cheerleader vs. watchdog
John Alden, who worked for both the SFPD’s Internal Affairs division and the Department of Police Accountability, said the commission’s tendency to swing between watchdog and cheerleader mode “created mixed messaging about what their priorities were.”
At times, good work was done, Alden said, like the new reform-minded use-of-force policy. Other times, things like discipline could be inconsistent when commissioners succumbed to pressure from the police union.
At a recent working group to overhaul the SFPD’s traffic enforcement policy and possibly limit the use of controversial pretext stops, outspoken police reform advocate Phelicia Jones accused the Police Commission of not acting with urgency; she’d spent years speaking out against racial bias in traffic stops, she said.
Commissioner Cindy Elias attempted to defend herself by putting the onus on her colleagues. “I’m just one commissioner.”
Newer commissioners on the oversight board appear to be joining Elias to bring the commission into “watchdog mode” once more: Jesús Gabriel Yáñez, Max Carter-Oberstone and Kevin Benedicto have each stepped up during their short tenures, and shown interest in moving reforms forward and questioning the status quo.
It may be that the job holds little interest or incentive for many, because it comes with few benefits. Commissioners get a $100 monthly stipend for their after-hours work on the oversight board, making it “a thankless job in many respects,” Hing said.
The politics behind police accountability
This, pressure from the mayor, or both, could explain the commission’s inaction when the police chief suddenly moved to terminate an agreement directing the District Attorney’s office to investigate police shootings and use of force, a major reform that took years to negotiate.
“When they all disagreed with the chief, but they didn’t take action to push him to get back into that MOU, it seemed like some fix was in,” Attard said.
Instead of channeling the widespread community outrage at the chief’s move, then-president Cohen cut the discussion short. She insisted the subject was off-agenda and refused to acknowledge her colleagues’ requests that the discussion be calendared for the next meeting.
“As a San Francisco resident, I was embarrassed,” Attard said, noting that the commission shied away from handling the matter, and instead the mayor and state attorney general got involved. “They didn’t exercise the strong authority that they have. … When they don’t exercise the strong authority that they have, it undermines their authority.”
Cohen declined to comment on the MOU dispute.
Hing said he was “upset at the politics” under which many commissioners often avoided disagreement with the police chief or the mayor. Dissenters, like former commissioners Angela Chan or John Hamasaki, both appointed by the Board of Supervisors, often face heat and risk not being reappointed when their term runs out.
Such politics still seem to be at play today; although the entire commission evidently disagreed with Scott’s move to end the investigation agreement with the District Attorney, none pushed to compel the chief to keep the agreement. Former commissioner Hamasaki, who recently filed papers to run for District Attorney, pointed to this lack of action earlier this year, when he announced he would not seek a second term.
“This is where we need to be able to assert ourselves,” Hamasaki said, at the time, to Mission Local, lamenting that the commission tiptoed around the chief, instead of compelling him to remain in the agreement with the DA’s office.
“What are we gonna do when it’s a harder call?” Instead of waiting to find out, Hamasaki announced that he would not seek another term on the commission. He stepped down in April.
Though he was only on the commission for a year and a half, Hing told Mission Local, “it was enough to fill my stomach with awful feelings about the Police Commission and the police.” He recalled being frustrated with fellow commissioners who never voted for more oversight or disagreed with the chief.
Hing declined to renew his seat when his partial term ended in 2018.
Chan, once an outspoken commissioner, was not reappointed to the Police Commission in 2014, after completing her first term. Despite the strong progressive support for Chan, the Board of Supervisors split on its vote to replace her. Seven supervisors, including London Breed, Malia Cohen, David Chiu, and Scott Weiner supported Chan’s replacement, Victor Hwang.
“She spoke truth to power, and that made people in office uncomfortable,” said then-Supervisor John Avalos, who voted against removing Chan from the commission. “But, you know, our system is put in place to maintain the status quo.”
Chan, now Chief of “Confront and Advocate” at the Public Defender’s office, said that she sees the Police Commission as under a sort of regulatory capture by the police department.
“Generally, that is a pattern that I see across the country when it comes to police commissions that are supposed to set policy and administer discipline of officers,” Chan said. “In many cases, these police oversight bodies get captured by the bodies they’re overseeing.”
In San Francisco, that is literally the case.
The Police Commission’s office is on the sixth floor of the police headquarters. Its secretary is a sworn member of the SFPD; he writes commission reports and sets its agenda, but ultimately reports to the chief of police. The policy advisor tracking progress on 272 reform recommendations from the Department of Justice left in January, and his seat remains vacant; the commission is subject to the SFPD’s current hiring freeze.
And the commission’s legal counsel is the same City Attorney who represents the police department.
Independent oversight isn’t here yet
For true oversight, the Police Commission needs its own staff and counsel, said Attard. The way things stand now, she said, “nothing can ever be confidential.”
Some things, meanwhile, remain too confidential: Since a 2006 California Supreme Court ruling, police discipline cases have been held in closed session, meaning the public has little insight into alleged misconduct, which officers are disciplined, and how the DPA, the Police Commission, or the police chief approach discipline cases.
Like the Department of Police Accountability, the Police Commission also depends on the SFPD for disclosures and transparency that facilitate its oversight duties.
In May, a frustrated acting president Cindy Elias demanded an explanation after the SFPD allowed an important policy to expire without sounding an alarm: One outlining requirements for police interrogations of youth.
That department bulletin outlines how police officers can interact with children under 17, and ensures that an attorney or adult is present during interrogations. Since bulletins automatically expire after two years, per SFPD policy, the Written Directives Unit is responsible for ongoing review of all bulletins and tracking their upcoming expiration dates.
A lapsed bulletin could mean that police officers stop following the policy because, technically, it’s no longer policy.
“Not only does it put juveniles in danger, but it also puts officers, I think, in a very hard position, because if they’re not aware, or if they’re not following it … you can’t hold them accountable or discipline them,” Elias said. And, even after the SFPD realized the lapse, Elias found, the police failed to notify the commission or the DPA.
SFPD members present were unable to explain the oversight.
Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone, a newer member appointed by the mayor, said in January that he faced resistance from the police department in accessing pedestrian and stop data that the SFPD already collects and sends to the California Department of Justice.
“We need to have unfettered access to data that is already within the department’s possession. Because if we don’t have that access, we really can’t do our jobs,” Carter-Oberstone said.
He added he had faced “back-and-forth” and a delay in receiving the data, while legally, the information should have been public. (Then-president Cohen thanked Carter-Oberstone for “restating the obvious.”)
But Carter-Oberstone’s push made a difference; by the next week, Chief Bill Scott had agreed to automatically send the data in question to the DPA and the Police Commission.
It offers at least one small example of how a more aggressive stance can bring change.