John Crew speaking in 2009
John Crew in 2009. Photo courtesy of Michael Woolsey/ACLU

As a young attorney in 1984, John Crew was on assignment at Union Square, observing police officers as they demanded identification from unhoused residents who had committed no crime. A pair of officers noticed and questioned Crew, then handcuffed him and put him in the back of a police car.

That incident framed Crew’s lifelong passion for criminal justice reform: One of those arresting officers was Gary Delagnes, the future head of the San Francisco police union. Moreover, the practice of arresting someone for failing to provide identification became a policy to change.

The next several decades of San Francisco police reform efforts would, in some ways, be informed by that long-ago day. 

A longtime champion of police reform and beloved community mentor, Crew, who had arrhythmia, died suddenly last week of what his friends believe was heart failure. He was 65.

Crew worked for decades at the American Civil Liberties Union and at the forefront of police oversight in San Francisco and beyond, and was known as someone with a trove of knowledge to call on, the rare advocate who could reach both sides of the aisle. 

“When an issue came up, you could just see his mind going and pulling out all this information from years back,” said Barbara Attard, an old friend and colleague of Crew’s in police oversight. 

Later, Crew called his 1984 arrest “trivial” compared to what marginalized people and people of color endure at the hands of police, and said it was emblematic of a disregard for rules among some at the police department. The event drove him to advocate for, and soon help pass, an SFPD policy on investigative detentions, said Samara Marion, who worked for the Department of Police Accountability and first met Crew about 40 years ago. 

Thanks, in part, to Crew’s work, the department’s general order now states that the refusal or failure to provide identification cannot be the sole reason to arrest or detain. 

The same policy required officers to make a record of their detentions and releases, which former Department of Police Accountability investigator Jayson Wechter said set a new standard for ensuring officers “understood what they did when, where, and how.” 

In making change, many remember Crew as a one-of-a-kind activist who knew the best way to fight the good fight: with persistence and kindness. These qualities, combined with his decades of experience in San Francisco politics and appreciation of its history, allowed him to spearhead other reforms and policies for the San Francisco Police Department that remain in place today. 

“You couldn’t write him off,” added University of California, Hastings, law professor Veena Dubal, who first worked with Crew when she was a fledgling attorney and became close friends with him. “He was in their face, in the face of power, and he was unrelenting — but he was remarkably even-keeled and respectful.” 

Though he retired early from his position as the ACLU’s Police Practices director, Crew remained an outspoken watchdog, often sharing thoughtful criticisms at Police Commission and other government meetings. He sparred with San Francisco’s police union and persisted in underscoring racial disparities in the SFPD’s enforcement. On Thursday evening, shortly before his death, Crew spoke at a fundraiser for district attorney candidate John Hamasaki. 

Crew’s relentless drive and dedication to bettering his city meant his sudden death on Friday came as a particularly devastating loss to the community. Several of his friends and colleagues echoed one another: There was no one quite like him. 

Crew was born in Los Angeles in 1957, and attended Northwestern University as an undergraduate, where he met his wife of 27 years, Sheila Gadsden. She died in 2012. He attended law school at UC Hastings before he began working at the ACLU of Northern California, first as an intern, and then as the head of its Police Practices Project. 

As a man known for unwavering ethics and dedication to equity and democracy, some suggested that keeping a watchful eye on areas at risk of authoritarianism, like policing, was a natural path for someone like Crew. 

But at the end of the day, Crew just simply had a “vault of information” and could connect the dots like no one else, said Attard, his old friend and colleague. 

“He couldn’t help himself,” Attard said of Crew’s tirelessness even in retirement. “He really cares about the community, he cares about San Francisco.” And when he saw bad actors, corruption, or anyone standing in the way of progress and change, she said, it “just drove him nuts.” 

In 2001, Attard presented Crew with the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement’s first-ever award in police oversight. 

Even those who disagreed with him, regarded him with respect. “John was a true believer,” says Delagnes, who was among the officers who arrested Crew in the 1984 arrest. “I respected his passion. Not his views.”  

Others on the police force saw a more complex advocate.

“One of his skills was to get granular, but people’s eyes would not glaze over as he dealt with the details,” said Rich Correia, a retired SFPD commander and lawyer. Correia said Crew’s “common-sense” outlook helped him come to see different sides of an issue. 

Correia recalled a Police Commission meeting in the 1990s when the body was handling the controversial matter of whether to arm officers with pepper spray instead of mace. While many reformers were reflexively against this, Crew was not. 

“John stepped up to the podium — and he owned that podium,” remembered Correia. “He said, ‘Everybody is against this pepper spray thing. But I prefer the pepper spray to the lead spray,’” referring to bullets. 

This openness set Crew apart in Correia’s eyes. “John saw that if you trained officers and you had a good policy, it was not unreasonable to put something in the escalation-of-force options, to insert an intermediate step” before deadly force, he said. “John looked at it as a plus. I think he was right.” 

Retired SFPD sergeant Carl Tennenbaum said Crew subconsciously influenced him and his mindset throughout his career, starting from when he was a young beat cop who became an active member of the police union. 

“I respected the hell out of him,” Tennenbaum said. “I came to learn over the years that everything he was trying to do was for the benefit of everyone, even the cops, in spite of their resistance.” 

And many who knew him, whether directly involved in police reform or not, remembered Crew as a patient teacher and mentor who helped them see issues in a new light. 

When the ACLU discovered an agreement allowing some SFPD officers to work on the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force in the early aughts — and therefore circumvent city laws and stricter protections against surveillance — Crew stepped up and called it deceitful. 

“He said, ‘There is a secret agreement between the local police and the FBI,’” Dubal said. “And I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s so brilliant. I never would have thought to put it in those terms.’ But, of course, that’s exactly what it was.” 

Crew “incited the kind of necessary outrage” on the issue, and years later, in 2017, the SFPD withdrew from the agreement. 

Among various discussions he helped shape, Crew was an instrumental voice in reforming the SFPD’s use-of-force policy; defeating the police union-authored Prop. H to allow officers to use Tasers and evade scrutiny from the police chief and commission; and protecting First Amendment rights against police surveillance. 

Crew educated a new generation of people who have since moved on to a wide range of careers, all with an optimistic energy and unassuming attitude that captivated so many. Upon learning of his death, younger politicians, attorneys, and organizers called him an inspiration that helped direct and focus their work. 

Dolores Piper, who raised her nephew, Derrick Gaines, before he was shot and killed by South San Francisco police in 2012, quickly noticed Crew when she began attending Police Commission and Board of Supervisors meetings as part of her fight for justice for her nephew. 

“Oh, he was always so articulate, and always very calm,” Piper said. “If I came to speak at those meetings, I would get so nervous.”

She began asking Crew for advice on how to advocate, and said she was grateful to have learned from him, likening him to an easy-to-understand professor.

John Crew in 2009. Photo courtesy of Michael Woolsey/ACLU.

“He was a visionary with a profound sense of history and power dynamics, and was also practical as to what the next steps are,” said Marion, who considered Crew a mentor since she first met him in the 1980s, and he helped her implement police oversight in Santa Cruz when it was still a novel concept. 

Added Correia, “He was one of those guys who, as long as he was out there, I knew things were going to be okay. There’d be a voice for reason and change. And now I find out that voice has been silenced. It’s distressing.”

Without Crew around, Marion said, “everyone has to work harder.” 

“I can just hear him say: ‘It’s your turn now, it’s not my fight anymore, it’s your fight,’” said Dubal said. 

When he wasn’t working, friends knew Crew as a sports enthusiast who frequented Warriors basketball games and Giants baseball games. He loved Afrobeat, reggae, and country music; just a week before his death, he attended Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival at Golden Gate Park. 

“I’m glad he took a day off,” said Attard, who attended the festival with him. The next day, perhaps unsurprisingly, he was out campaigning. 

Crew was close to his family, and is survived by his two daughters, Simone and Erica, and four older brothers. 

With additional reporting from Joe Eskenazi.

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REPORTER. Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim nearly 10 years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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  1. It is so rare in a city as universally diverse as San Francisco to find a man as well respected by seemingly infinite sides of every argument. In my time working with both San Franciscans for Police Accountability and the Committee to Recall Ed Lee, John was a pillar of calm and powerful, deep running wisdom. His energy was tangible and palpable, he could remain silent in a meeting, studying the arguments and statements of opposing opinion and still be a focal point because everyone in the room would be waiting for his corroborative outlook. He was intelligent, wise, well spoken, thoughtful, and empathetic, and I deeply respected him and his storied career. This article is a very fitting tribute to his legacy.

    Also LMAO about Gary Delagnes (who is dispicable and hateful and always takes an opportunity to speak ill of the dead) being the arresting officer that learned his lesson time and time again at the hands of John Crew. I for one will forever be a faithful member of John’s crew. May the gates of Heaven open wide to accept him and may his blessings and spirit forever shine upon all of us who will continue to build upon his legendary legacy.

  2. This comes as a shock to me. John Crew was a San Franciscan that stayed true to his calling. Not everyone appreciated his stance on topics but he was steadfast. May there be another person to step into his position and take it as serious as John did. God bless John Crew.

  3. My family lived next door to John for over ten years. He always chatted with my daughters through their bedroom window and was simply a delightful human. He will be missed.

  4. John Crew was the best! A true San Franciscan who was always true to his principles but always remembered that we’re all in this together. Fearless and always effective. We should all take a minute and learn from him–creating change requires not just advocating for truth but also gaining the respect, trust and the changing of minds of those who did not start out agreeing with you. An irreplaceable loss.

  5. I shall wholeheartedly miss John. He was detail oriented in all the right ways, with a gentle and sharp sense of humor coupled with a slow boil sense of outrage that he managed to explicate without blowing up. Sort of the angry chuckle, then a dive in with a scalpel that would carefully, yet respectfully, carve up the offending position.
    I met him as a queer reporter covering the cops’ Castro raid and various other uniformed misbehavior. Let me list: Police harassment of ACT UP, the Rodney King martial law, police spying, the ADL scandal. He was always there. On the street. In the police commission.
    And even after he ‘retired’ he was the first person I went to when I started working on trying to/helping enact bans on Facial Recognition Tech. Yes he will be missed, and we will have to work harder.
    I will sorely miss his wry smile and zinging comments. A truly good and righteous soul who left us too soon.

  6. Thank you for this. I had the honor of working with John when I was Chairwoman of the ACLU’s Silicon Valley chapter and we were sorting out issues with the San Jose Police Department. Later, after I moved to the City, I worked with him again on the Police Practices Project along with the late Ruth Jacobs. He was always so generous with his time and suggestions. He truly made a difference for the better.

  7. Thank you for this story. He was one of the very best of us. This sudden loss resonates. Especially as we witness over reach by some in power and their lack of accountability to the public. San Franciscans lost a giant……a truly humble servant of the people.