Max Carter-Oberstone, a mayoral appointee to the Police Commission, made it clear he feels the SFPD is working against reforms — and that the mayor's office is abetting them.

Update, Oct. 4: The mayor’s office has provided 10 more preemptive resignation letters.

Imagine, if you will, that we are all prisoners in a cave. As I write this, it’s 70 degrees and glorious in lovely San Francisco, but let’s just suppose. 

Imagine that all we can see are projections on a cave wall of puppets, handled by unseen puppeteers, and backlit by a fire. This, to us, is reality. But, really, it’s just shadows, cast by puppet-masters.  

Imagine, then, that we escape the cave and see things as they really are in the light of day — in not-so-glorious but lovely San Francisco. Oh, what a trip that would be.  

Yes, it’s Plato’s allegory of the cave. Not exactly a new reference, unless you’re keeping time geologically, but ever-relevant. Because, once you’re out of the cave, you have to blink your eyes a few times. It’s amazing the things you can see. 

Late last month, the San Francisco Standard’s Michael Barba began releasing a series of stories that shed an inordinate amount of light on this city’s dark and shadows. Barba uncovered such an embarrassment of riches that it’s difficult to adequately summarize what he found. That also makes it worthwhile to slow down and dwell on some of this material; news cycles move fast.

In short: A mayoral appointee to the police commission accuses the police department he in part oversees and the mayor’s office that put him in this job of both slow-walking and undermining much-needed reforms. 

But there’s more. Here’s a fast recap: 

Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone, a mayoral appointee, displeased Mayor London Breed by voting for Board appointee Cindy Elias to be president of the commission rather than fellow mayoral appointee Larry Yee. This denied Mayor London Breed de-facto control over the commission. That led her to publicly call Carter-Oberstone a liar. It’s not pleasant to be publicly called a liar by the mayor of a major American city, and he vociferously refuted that charge. But there’s more:

Carter-Oberstone said that much of the mayoral rancor about not having her appointee in charge of the Police Commission was due to Breed’s desire to potentially dismiss Chief Bill Scott — a move Carter-Oberstone intuited to be “imminent.” (The mayor can still unilaterally fire the chief. But, without a compliant commission president and four solid votes, it’d be impossible to ensure her preferred successor’s name is conveniently among those the commission advances to her). But there’s more: 

Carter-Oberstone revealed he’d been made to sign a preemptive resignation letter as a condition of re-appointment. Public records requests unearthed some 40 of these letters across many commissions — and signed by many commissioners the mayor did not have unilateral authority to remove.   

But there’s more: Text messages obtained by Barba contain accusations by Carter-Oberstone that he was pressured by a mayoral lieutenant to make public statements he felt to be duplicitous in order to rupture an agreed-upon police reform process.

That’s a hell of a thing to be asked to do. So let’s take a moment with that.

Mayor London Breed had a challenging September. Photo by Abraham Rodriguez, 2018.

Much of the friction between Carter-Oberstone and the mayor and police department stems from pretext stops.

This is when police pull over drivers for infractions as niggling as fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror, and potentially launch a fishing expedition to find  more serious charges. People of color are far more likely to be pulled over and, in some cases, these are lethal encounters: When Philando Castile was pulled over by Minneapolis-area police, ostensibly for a broken tail light, it was the 46th — and final — time he’d be stopped.  

Carter-Oberstone introduced proposed changes in May to the San Francisco Police Department policies regarding pretext stops (Department General Order 9.01). It has not been a smooth process. While, in public, everyone is naturally in favor of curtailing racism in policing, Carter-Oberstone’s texts claim the SFPD has acted in bad faith, moved to undermine and delay the proceedings, and has been abetted in this by the mayor’s office. 

“This dept, from my experience thus far, has a huge truthfulness problem,” Carter-Oberstone texted to Ivy Lee, a policy advisor to the mayor. “Lying is actually institutionalized as far as I can tell. I’ve been lied to in black in white (sic) in sfgov emails, they’ve falsified data, etc. … I realize that this sounds harsh, but its (sic) just an inescapable conclusion at this point.” 

And all of this came to a head on Monday, Aug. 1, at 5:36 p.m., when Carter-Oberstone texted mayoral policy director Andres Power. 

“Hi Andres, I just wanted to follow up on our discussion to let you know I wont (sic) be able to make a statement along the lines of what you proposed for 2 reasons,” he wrote, referring to the request, or perhaps something more than a request, that he postpone the working group’s meetings on pretext stops. 

“First, it’s untrue. Thanks to [the Human Rights Commission’s] hard work, there will be a robust community engagement process. And second, the call to postpone the [working groups] has never been about concern for community, it’s always been sfpd’s attempt to delay the [Department General Order] process.”  

After being accused of “caving to politics,” Carter-Oberstone texted Power again, noting that, “I’m doing what I think is right and refusing to say something that I know is untrue. … I simply cannot make a public statement like this which I know to be false.” 

SFPD on the scene at 21st and Mission streets shortly after shots were fired on Aug. 5. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan.

What’s going on, here? Carter-Oberstone tells Mission Local that Power called him the day, before the first working group regarding pretext stops, and asked him to make an “impassioned speech” calling into question the legitimacy of the proceedings due to inadequate community input. And if this speech didn’t derail the meeting, “I should ‘seriously consider’ boycotting the working group process.” 

In short: Carter-Oberstone has claimed that the SFPD’s unstated strategy regarding pretext stops has been to slow-walk the process and deride it as illegitimate. And that’s exactly what he says he was instructed to do by the mayor’s lieutenant. 

Carter-Oberstone says he hung up the phone with the distinct impression that failure to follow Power’s dictum would result in serious consequences. On that very day, he moved to rescind his preemptive resignation letter

Our message to Power was returned by mayoral spokesperson Jeff Cretan. He assured us that Power simply wanted the community’s voice to be heard, and that Carter-Oberstone was not being leaned on. 

Cretan was not a party on the phone calls between Power and Carter-Oberstone. But, more to the point: It’s not entirely clear that Carter-Oberstone can be leaned on — especially without a catch-all resignation letter hanging over his head. He has made it clear to anyone who asks that he does not aspire to run for elected office. He is not on the political hamster wheel, and is not counting on the powers that be for patronage or public advancement in this city.

Rather, he is an established attorney with a subject-matter expertise in pretext stops who clearly wants to see progress on this issue. A watered-down proposal that allows everyone to claim victory while substantively achieving little is clearly not palatable for him.

But would it be palatable for the mayor’s office? Quite possibly. Even something less than that might be.  

“The big picture is that this is an important policy to the mayor,” Lee texted to Carter-Oberstone. “She wants to see pretext stops end. And any personality or other distractions that make that harder to accomplish are not helpful.” 

“But this issue is not the top priority for the Mayor, and if this policy distracts or undermines her top priority of shoring up the department’s staffing resources that is a problem.” 

Well, that’s a hell of a dichotomy. 

It’s notable how thoroughly Carter-Oberstone has created a written, public record of his brief but eventful tenure on the Police Commission, documenting the interactions his interlocutors would clearly rather have gone undocumented. It would seem there is plausibly a written, public record behind most all of Carter-Oberstone’s claims.

Won’t they be something to read. In the light of day.  

See also:

Mayor Breed required resignation letters from dozens of appointees

Update, Oct. 4: The mayor’s office has provided 10 more preemptive resignation letters. The City Attorney today published an opinion that Mayor London Breed’s practice of requiring commissioners to submit a letter of resignation as a condition of appointment is “inconsistent” with the City Charter — but not prohibited by it.  The letter comes on the heels of…

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Managing Editor/Columnist. Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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  1. Thank you again Joe for the fantastic reporting on this developing story. If it is has not been done already, it might also be worthwhile to submit public records requests for any undated pre-signed resignation letters submitted to Department Heads. Per Charter Sections 3.100.19 and 4.102.5, the Mayor appoints Department Heads subject to approval by the Commission or Board for that Department.

    Given the existence of at least 40 such letters for appointees to Boards and Commissions, it seems entirely possible that Mayor Breed issued similar letters to appointed Department Heads. It might also be interesting to see if any such letters were issued during the Willie Brown, Gavin Newsom and/or Ed Lee administrations.

  2. Just got a robo mailer for the terrible Weiner and YIMBY endorsed Prop D measure. And guess what: former D2 supervisor candidate, YIMBY and the Mayor’s appointee (to MTA) Nicholas Josefowitz donated $100,000 in support of Prop D and opposing Prop E. He also signed an undated letter of resignation. Why? Follow the money:

  3. Also: bear in mind that the Mayor appoints ALL of the commissioners to the SF Rent Board. Many conflicts of interest and controversies have arisen in recent years. Who can forget Breed’s bizarre and abrupt firing of revered SF Rent Board commissioner and attorney Polly Marshall while she was on vacation hiking in the Sierra? We all know landlord/tenant law is extremely complex, so Breed’s attempt to replace seasoned and knowledgeable Marshall with a person who had zero knowledge of the legal complexities of tenant law stunk to high heaven. Thankfully that Breed appointee was rejected because of vigorous public outcry. Let’s just say: in her +10 years at City Hall (as D5 supe and as mayor), Breed makes pretty speeches about protecting tenants, but her actions consistently harm tenants and reward real estate speculators and investors.

  4. Cui bono? Who benefits from pretext stops? Are San Francisco residents made safer by pretext stops? Do San Francisco residents feel safer with pretext stops? Why does eliminating pretext stops contradict or hold back “department staffing”? Who defends pretext stops? Why does a black woman who grew up in the projects fly into a rage when a police commissioner questions the value of pretext stops? Isn’t that what police commissioners are supposed to do? Wasn’t eliminating pretext stops one of the unanimous recommendations of all the reform reports of 2015-16? Didn’t the SFPD agree without any stipulations without stating objections at the time? Why would the SFPD want to stall or undermine reform of it? Don’t officers have anything better to do? Wouldn’t getting rid of this abusive and racist practice help improve the image of the police and improve police-community relations? What does the POA say? Seems we are still in the cave, with shadows dancing on the wall. But we don’t need to go full Plato on it. Just ask a simple question: cui bono?

  5. thank you to JOe and Baba for shining the light on these important issues.
    i am personally not suprised. (full disclosure: i campaigned against her ‘zonor because i a;ready saw the dirt that covered her from head to toe.) it was apparent to many back then that she would corrupt the process and defraud our City of honest services. to suggest it is just hardball politics devalues the many lives lost to SFPD killings following pretext stops.

    still wondering if anyone will ever care about the death of two transients in a hail of gunfire by our be-luvd police next to the caltrain tracks. who speaks for the tress?

  6. “…this policy distracts or undermines her top priority of shoring up the department’s staffing resources that is a problem.”
    Wait, what? If “staffing resources” is “a problem” wouldn’t the end of pretext stops free up countless officers (resources) to deploy where needed (staffing)?

  7. Joe,

    This old huntin’ dog thinks the amazing thing is that the Standard has allowed Michael so much chain.

    My read after they banned me for being, well, me …

    I read them and still do is Moderate Managed …

    Kinda like Breed appointees.

    What happened to the voices of Chris Roberts and Matt Smith ??

  8. This mayor has appointed hundreds of individuals to powerful commissions and boards. Every day, her appointees make major decisions to do with policies that impact the daily lives of San Franciscans. She clearly sought to influence the decisions and policies. This is a BIG deal. Also: rotten optics when the City Attorney David Chiu (who was originally appointed to that post by Breed) weighs in on this incident and practice; he should have recused himself. The trail of murky appointments and taint is thick (Suzy Loftus, Mohammed Nuru, Brooke Jenkins, Harlan and Naomi Kelly). Time to end these power grabs by an elected official who just happens to be the most well paid mayor and the most powerful mayor in all the nation.

  9. This was solid gold reporting by Barba – a peek into how the watch winds and unwinds. Cool of Eskenazi to give Barba such a outright nod as to link his byline.

    For those who haven’t gone through Barba’s articles and clicked on the links leading to the full text exchanges, I highly recommend microwaving a bag of popcorn and doing so.

  10. Pretty simple progression to follow.

    1. Police hate reforms of any kind.
    2. Police Union tells Breed they don’t like the reforms, threatens to back another candidate for mayor.
    3. Breed suddenly hates reforms.

  11. Joe, I’m sorry to say it but you’re still in the cave.

    Mohammed Nuru — that was corruption, and it went on for years, in plain sight, and the local media didn’t think it was important enough to cover.

    This? This is nothing. A political skirmish with a mayor who plays hardball, and that is the revelation. Who’s the victim here? Where’s the crime?

    Meanwhile, the city is spending $1.1 billion on homeless services with no oversight. Surely there’s a better story there.

    1. David — 

      I suppose it’s not as big a story as whatever you think it is, but why do you keep posting with so many different names? It’s almost as if you’d want us to think there’s a multiplicity of voices coming from one.

      It’s hard to solve San Francisco’s conundrums, but this one is easy.

      Farewell.

      JE

    2. The voters passed Charter Amendments setting conditions on removing commissioners on certain Boards and Commissions, conditions that the Mayor illegally tried to evade using resignation letters. The voters have been defrauded of honest government services, the crime that the FBI has moved against in SF.

      1. Doesn’t meet the criteria set by SCOTUS in Skilling v US.

        “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the majority decisions in both the Skilling and Black cases, said the law must be limited to the offenses of bribes and kickbacks. She was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices John Paul Stevens, Stephen G. Breyer, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor.”

        -NY Times, 2010

        1. Who knows what’s under the hood with respect for money changing hand and quid pro quo for favorable political consideration. Undated letters of resignation are not something demanded for no particular reason at all.

          1. “I’ve got this thing and it’s f—— golden” and “I’m just not giving it up for … nothing.”

            -Former IL Governor Rod Blagojevich to current IL Governor JB Pritzker

            JB was too smart to respond directly. Forget Treasurer, he waited it out for the big prize. But let’s face it, Blagojevich was merely saying the quiet part out loud.

  12. Looks like an ongoing criminal conspiracy officially led by London Breed to deprive the electorate of honest government services, including defying the DoJ reform recommendations.

    Where are the supervisors on this? Prone, that’s where.

  13. Thank you again Mr. Eskenazi for your thorough and well researched independent journalism. Your point about hyper accelerated news cycles is well taken. Pretty safe to say that the Mayor is hoping this story will evaporate into the Fall air. I’ve been researching her appointees (Planning Commission, Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, SF Rent Board, Redistricting Task Farce, Board of Ed etc) wondering if any or all signed undated letters of resignation. This behavior is truly shocking, even from her. San Franciscans deserve better.

    1. Greeny, Joe reported on this by embedding the letters in Scribd in the article at this link:

      https://missionlocal.org/2022/09/breed-asks-for-resignation-letters-from-troves-of-appointees/

      Some tenants have noticed over the years that certain Rent Board adjudicators are overly friendly and side heavily with the real estate speculators in their rulings, despite much evidence in favor of the tenants, and now it all makes sense.

      And replaying the recent Redistricting Task Force soap opera through the lens of these undated resignation letters is also illuminating.

      1. Since this Mayor has her own power grabby agenda, independent citizens (and journalists like Joe E) must continue to shine a bright light on Breed’s appointees and their actions/decision making. 2 recent appointees by Breed to SF Rent Board are Vanita Louie and Arthur Tom. Derek Braun, Breed’s puzzling and recent appointee to the Planning Commission, warrants special scrutiny as well.