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.
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.”
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.
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…