A cost-benefit analysis of policing the police would make an actuary ill.
The price of investigating nearly 4,000 complaints? Some $7.8 million. The outcome? Three officers received a penalty of a 10-day suspension or harsher outcome, between 2017 and 2021.
As for benefits, San Francisco’s police department has cut its overall use of force in half over the past five years. But huge disparities persist in who that force is applied to: In the third quarter of 2021, the SFPD was still 13 times more likely to use force against a Black person than a white person. That’s the same rate as in 2018.
This was not the return on investment that police reform advocates hoped for in 2016, when 80 percent of the city’s voters approved the creation of a new Department of Police Accountability. The vote nearly doubled a predecessor agency’s funding, and professedly gave the department new powers to keep an eye on the SFPD — a force that had been under heavy scrutiny after a series of police shootings and scandals.
But no amount of money and personnel will help if the Department of Police Accountability fails to wield its power, police reform advocates said.
“Civilian oversight systems are designed to be watchdogs,” said police practices expert John Crew. “They can’t be effective if they’re unwilling to bark … and, when necessary, strategically ‘bite.’”
That bite is precisely what the well-funded Department of Police Accountability is missing, according to Crew and others familiar with San Francisco policing.
Despite the department’s authority on paper, reform advocates said, the oversight body lacks the strong leadership and independent authority required to effect change in a police department that — despite various reform efforts — continues to show a statistical racial bias in its policing. Moreover, the police department maintains an apparent ongoing resistance to accountability, as in the police chief’s decision earlier this year to suddenly terminate its agreement to make the District Attorney the lead investigator of police shooting cases.
The Department of Police Accountability has a nearly $10 million budget to review residents’ complaints, conduct investigations, and audit the SFPD and its policies. It works separately from, but often in tandem with, the SFPD and San Francisco’s seven-member civilian Police Commission, which is tasked with setting policy for the police department and hearing discipline cases.
The DPA investigates the public’s allegations of abuse at the hands of police, while the SFPD’s Internal Affairs Division investigates allegations from within the department. If the DPA decides a complaint merits less than a 10-day suspension, the case goes to the police chief to mete out the penalty. Any cases where the DPA recommends a more severe consequence are heard by the Police Commission.
But the DPA recommends discipline sparingly. It recommended a 10-day suspension or more in 7 percent of discipline cases, according to its 2020 “Discipline Study.” And, between 2017 and 2019, just five officers’ cases were closed after DPA suggested a Police Commission hearing. Three of those were disciplined with 10-day suspensions or harsher punishments, one resigned, and another was deemed a policy failure.
Critics say that often, both the DPA and the Police Commission fail to use the powers they ostensibly have.
Dependence on the SFPD
This city’s police watchdog agencies have “never been as effective as [they] should be,” said Barbara Attard, a policing expert who worked for an earlier iteration of the DPA, the Office of Citizen Complaints.
The Office of Citizen Complaints was first approved by voters in 1982, and became the Department of Police Accountability after the 2016 vote. “It was instituted as one of the oversight agencies with a lot of power,” said Attard who worked at the office for nearly 15 years until 1997.
Attard noted that part of the issue is that police oversight is often dependent on the SFPD to do its job, and the police department moves at its own pace.
“Is it a lack of staffing?” Attard said. “Or is [the SFPD] foot-dragging intentionally so DPA can’t do its work?”
In July, both DPA executive director Paul Henderson and policy director Janelle Caywood spoke out against the SFPD for stalling on critical policy reforms. It was a concerted but unusual public push for accountability. The pair pointed not only to the police department falling short on overdue reforms, but also challenged the Police Commission to use its power to keep the SFPD on track.
A key recommendation from a July, 2016, Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement was that oversight must come with “unfettered access to all SFPD files and documents,” through an Office of Inspector General. The 239-page report also suggested that the DPA should have enhanced investigative and policy capabilities.
While the department got the funding in the 2016 vote just months later, the new powers quickly proved illusory.
When Attard worked at the predecessor of the Department of Accountability, she said she had access to the criminal history of residents and officers, and other information in the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System. Today, the DPA, with its supposedly strengthened oversight power, relies on the SFPD to redact this information from the content it sends to the DPA — at its own pace.
Instead of following the Blue Ribbon panel’s suggestion, further restrictions came in 2018, when the SFPD sent an email to the state questioning the DPA’s access to the telecommunications system. In response, the California Department of Justice advised the SFPD to bar DPA from accessing certain data in a local police database. The police department did so “to reduce risk and liability,” said the response from the SFPD’s IT analyst, Hilarie Coby.
DPA Chief of Staff Sarah Hawkins said she and her colleagues have also long been pushing — without success — for direct access to police body-worn camera footage. Without it, the SFPD can stall by taking long periods to redact and edit out information from the telecommunications system. While that is all they can redact, the delays in doing so slow investigations.
Policy attorney Jermain Jones of DPA said he’s spent the past year pushing for a compromise to access this data to thereby speed up the sharing of information between the two departments. He is in the process of asking the Attorney General to reconsider.
None of this surprises the 2016 panel’s executive director, Anand Subramanian.
“My expectation for [DPA’s] impact was always relatively low,” he wrote in an email to Mission Local. The panel foresaw the need for more checks to ensure DPA was doing its work effectively. But, he said, it also needed more powers and resources.
But there were other new powers that came with Prop. G’s passage in 2016. It gave the newly created DPA the power to audit the police department’s use-of-force policies and any other SFPD policy, procedure, or practice.
The measure, co-written by then-supervisors Malia Cohen and London Breed, not only doubled DPA’s budget, it required the funds for the new city department to come directly from the mayor’s office, instead of being funded as an offshoot of the police department.
The department eventually increased its staff from less than 30 to nearly 50 employees to handle its new duties.
Even with the added staff, the number of investigators stayed about the same; DPA maintained its required minimum of one investigator per 150 SFPD officers. In addition to filling open positions, Hawkins said that DPA hired across the board: In the new audit division, adding attorneys, and promoting senior employees.
Does the complaint process work?
Despite more staff and more money, the DPA’s reactive role of processing citizen complaints still doesn’t seem to be the best way to keep police in line and citizens happy.
The majority of cases end with findings that favor the officer; in the third quarter of 2021, 43 percent of allegations were deemed “proper conduct” or “unfounded,” while another 20 percent had “insufficient evidence” or “no finding.”
In the end, about 10 percent of all cases each year result in a discipline recommendation from the DPA. Fewer cases still actually see an officer disciplined.
And, according to the DPA’s satisfaction report for its first three years, 66 percent of civilian complainants were dissatisfied with the outcome of their case. Meanwhile, 61 percent of officers said they received the outcome they deserved. New data on satisfaction with the department hasn’t been released since 2019.
Between 2017 and 2021, about 14 DPA investigators reviewed 3,510 cases opened against 5,085 officers, and found improper conduct in a total of 271 cases and 500 officers. Over that five-year period, this means the investigators saw, on average, 50 cases apiece each year, and found improper conduct in about 4.
DPA considers this workload for investigators — who are paid between $101,000 and $123,000 a year — a full-time job. They each typically have a workload of 15 to 26 cases at a given time, according to the department, and any given case can involve multiple officers and take long periods.
In the five years between 2017 and 2021, just three officers received a suspension of 10 days or more from the DPA after a commission hearing. One got a 45-day suspension for force and failure to act; another got 10 days for entering a home and detaining a person without cause; and a third was suspended for 30 days for lying and failing to turn on their body-worn camera.
More cases are sent to the commission — 15 are currently pending — but Hawkins pointed to various processes that officers are entitled to before a case can be considered closed.
“It can take years,” she said, referring to conferences and appeals that can drag out a disciplinary case. “That’s completely out of our hands, and it’s out of the Police Commission’s hands as well.”
John Alden, who formerly worked with SFPD’s Internal Affairs Division and then the DPA until 2018, said another major challenge for agencies like the DPA is their limited ability to transparently show the public their work.
“A lot of agencies unfairly are accused of not being effective only because people can’t see the work that they’re doing,” said Alden, who until earlier this year headed the DPA’s counterpart in Oakland, the Community Police Review Agency.
Alden said the DPA’s investigators are highly skilled, far more so than the SFPD’s investigators, and was loath to use the number of sustained allegations as an indicator of the department’s effectiveness.
Moreover, he said, a lot of behavior civilians consider punishable is allowed.
For example, a police officer can tell a driver to get out of their vehicle during a traffic stop, but many people don’t realize this is a legal request, Alden said. They complain to the DPA thinking their rights have been violated, and the case is closed in favor of the officer.
Even so, San Francisco’s DPA generally sustains citizen allegations at a higher rate, compared to other accountability agencies. According to its annual report released in July, DPA closed a total of 858 cases in 2021, with 531 of those cases requiring investigation, meaning investigators averaged three cases per month.
The department recommended discipline in 61 cases in 2021 — about 11 percent of its investigations. According to the California Department of Justice, the state average is less than 8 percent, and the LAPD sustains about 5 percent of complaints against its officers.
Better measures of success, Alden said, are the timeliness of case closures, or how often the department is unable to draw a conclusion. And by those measures, the DPA seems to be doing well.
Alden noted that the DPA’s burden of proof is a “preponderance” of evidence — meaning more than 50 percent of the evidence supports the claim.
“You almost always have enough to go to 51 percent,” he said, so a high rate of inconclusive findings could point to an incompetent accountability organization.
The DPA’s cases closed for “insufficient evidence” have slowly improved by this standard: In 2017, 38 percent of cases were closed for this reason, and by 2021 this category had dropped to about 10 percent, a dramatic improvement that the DPA attributes to the now-regular use of body-worn cameras.
And, after years of poorly managed case backlogs often exceeding the statute of limitations, the DPA now stays on top of closing its cases in a timely manner. Before Henderson took over the office, complaints regularly passed their statute of limitations and had to be dismissed.
But even in those cases when DPA does find misconduct, the discipline doesn’t always follow. When the DPA recommends less than a 10-day suspension, as in more than 90 percent of cases, the case goes to the police chief.
Hawkins, of the DPA, told Mission Local that, in 2021, Chief Scott agreed with the DPA’s recommended discipline in 41 percent of cases and actually imposed more discipline than DPA recommended in 14 percent of cases. Hawkins said this rate of agreement from the chief is higher than years past.
In 25 percent of cases, though, the chief refused to impose any discipline at all, meaning the case was closed and Hawkins said, “nothing happens.”
In the remaining 20 percent of cases, the officer retired before discipline could be imposed, or the chief disciplined the officer at a lower level than DPA suggested.
Generally, this means that the vast majority of officers found to be involved in misconduct faced no discipline or got a “written reprimand,” confirmed by the DPA’s most recent “Discipline Study” covering DPA’s first three years. About 25 officers in that period got one- to five-day suspensions.
Along with the creation of the DPA, voters in 2016 approved its new powers to audit the SFPD and its policies. But movement here is also slow.
After a 2020 audit of SFPD’s 2017 use-of-force practices, the police department finally responded in December, 2021: It had implemented less than a third of the audit recommendations. By June, the DPA reported that the level had risen to about half.
According to Hawkins, the police only follow DPA’s recommendations if they happen to dovetail with the SFPD’s priorities.
So, while the DPA has the budget and supposedly the power to go with it, it remains without the true authority to compel any action from the police department. Its best shot in getting the SFPD to act, Hawkins said, is to get the Police Commission to apply pressure, as it attempted to do last month.
“We can’t do their work,” Hawkins said.
A major factor stifling San Francisco’s police oversight at the Department of Police Accountability may simply be a lack of effective leadership, according to police reform experts.
Attard, who worked at the department at its inception, said Paul Henderson’s appointment as DPA director — first as interim director in mid-2017, and later as its permanent head — came as a surprise.
“[Henderson] doesn’t have the background in [police] oversight,” Attard said of the former mayoral deputy chief of staff and trial attorney, adding that he was a “political” appointment. The reports coming from the DPA are “shiny and beautiful,” she added, “but when you look for the meat in them, you can’t find it.”
Persistent pressure on the police department is required to be effective as an oversight agency, said Crew. “I’ve never seen [the DPA] become as assertive and aggressive as their legal powers and budget allow, as their role and the state of the SFPD require, and as the public expects (and, no doubt, would support),” he wrote in an email to Mission Local.
Henderson’s critics worry he is more concerned with media appearances that he promotes, and seeks, on his own webpage. These and his public image, they said, count more than aggressively pushing for true accountability. Henderson was a longtime prosecutor with the DA’s office, then Mayor Ed Lee’s deputy chief of staff.
The late mayor appointed Henderson as interim director, and Mayor Mark Farrell swore him in permanently in 2018.
Henderson called the claims “ludicrous:” As public safety liaison for the mayor, he said he worked for a year to improve long-standing problems at the Office of Citizen Complaints. Before that, he added, he did anti-bias work within the police department and policy work with the Police Commission.
And, in his free time, he said his media appearances are a way to amplify the DPA’s work on a national level. “San Francisco is served well by having my voice be one of the nation’s leading voices and authorities on both reform and accountability,” Henderson said.
In any case, Henderson said his department exceeds national standards, even though he doesn’t have the authority to enforce his department’s audit recommendations or get the SFPD to take DPA seriously. Instead, City Hall legislators, the police chief, and the Police Commission are the ones that can “order, demand or create rules and legislation based on things like the audit,” he said.
Former SFPD anti-bias trainer Dante King agreed that Henderson is an effective leader, but is missing the cooperation he needs from the Police Commission and the police department. King pointed to reform recommendations he, Crew and other police reform advocates presented last year at DPA’s request, while the police chief appeared to carry on separate conversations.
“I can’t order the department to do what I pointed out,” Henderson said. “Give me the jurisdiction, and I’ll do it today.” He noted that he cannot vote with the commission, or even attend disciplinary hearings initiated by the SFPD.
And, perhaps most important, Henderson said he has no reference point for what oversight and discipline looked like before his department was created, in the days when the SFPD investigated its own misconduct.
“Maybe DPA is totally ineffective,” Henderson said. Without more visibility into the police department, he said he can’t know.
He wondered why the police chief recommends higher discipline than DPA recommends in 15 percent of cases; to Henderson, this means that DPA may be doing more effective investigations than the SFPD’s Internal Affairs Division.
“I wish there was more that I could do other than arguing about it and presenting it through [the] Police Commission,” Henderson said. He insisted this is all he can do, and allow the commission in turn to make the DPA’s work a priority. Recently, DPA asked for an assigned commissioner to follow up on audit recommendations and Commissioner Kevin Benedicto took on this role.
But some say more must be done: When the DPA isn’t getting compliance from the SFPD, Crew said they should be “screaming from the bloody rooftops” — calendaring issues, holding press conferences, going to the Board of Supervisors.
“That’s Paul’s job to either do that himself or to make sure that takes place, and the commission’s role to light a fire under Paul to make sure he’s fully focused on the DPA’s mission,” said Crew.
read more: the police commission
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect what information in the California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System the DPA has access to, and what information is redacted by the SFPD.