A photo of a man
Mayor London Breed's appointee to the San Francisco Police Commission, Max Carter-Oberstone. Photo by Eleni Balakrishnan

When he was a college senior, an NAACP official gave a speech at Max Carter-Oberstone’s alma mater for Martin Luther King, Jr. day. The speaker laid on thick praise for Georgetown University, giving what one student in attendance called a “cookie cutter” speech. 

When it was Carter-Oberstone’s chance to address the crowd as a student speaker, the 21-year-old college senior declined to play the same game. He challenged his school to do better, pointing out Georgetown’s declining Black enrollment, and noting that the university’s celebrated first Black president was, in fact, only acknowledged as Black posthumously. 

“He used the term ‘window dressing,’” Carter-Oberstone’s former classmate, Jasson Crockett, said, recalling how his close friend undercut the cheery event with a dose of reality. “A lot of people sat up straight.” 

More than fifteen years later, Carter-Oberstone’s adherence to his moral compass remains strong. 

Once again at Wednesday’s Police Commission meeting, the vice chair took issue with the San Francisco Police Department’s attempt to usurp the civilian commission’s power and write its own policy directives — directives that are supposed to be created in collaboration with, and get approved by, the Police Commission. 

“I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say these bureau orders pose an existential risk to this commission, and to the public’s right to citizen oversight,” Carter-Oberstone said at Wednesday night’s commission meeting. “And if we fail to act, we will be complicit in the department’s lawlessness.”

It was another reminder to Mayor London Breed that her November, 2021, mayoral appointment was determined to steer an independent course. In this case, he wanted to rescind two recently written SFPD bureau orders that guide the police department’s undercover officers and its use of social media for investigations. That goal failed in a tied 3-3 vote, with three other mayoral appointees voting against Carter-Oberstone’s proposal, but the vice president of the commission promised to return to the issue when the full seven-member commission was in attendance. 

Wednesday’s vote was another example in which Carter-Oberstone, appointed by Mayor London Breed in November, 2021, bucked the tradition of mayoral appointees generally abiding by the mayor’s wishes.

Already, by September, 2022, the appellate attorney working as a police commissioner had exposed San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s secret practice of having her city appointees sign undated resignation letters

His whistleblowing, which solidified a rift between him and the mayor who appointed him, came after Carter-Oberstone voted for a Board of Supervisors appointee as president of the San Francisco Police Commission, singlehandedly shifting the oversight body out from under Breed’s ostensible control. Breed accused Carter-Oberstone of lying and misleading her, which he firmly disputed, but the deed was done. 

And days later, Carter-Oberstone spoke to the press about the resignation letter he was made to sign, which turned out to be a longstanding, and now discarded, tool she used to retain control of her supposedly independent appointees. 

If the mayor is unhappy, others have taken note. Earlier this spring, the 38-year-old was one of two public officials awarded a James Madison Freedom of Information Award by the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal, for his dedication to transparency. 

Entering San Francisco politics

Thinking back on the drama of last year, Carter-Oberstone shrugged off the fanfare. He doesn’t seem too bothered by becoming unpopular within parts of what he calls “San Francisco’s political class.” In his view, he was honest about his intentions when the mayor appointed him, and he is unsentimental about the fallout. 

“I guess it’s just my personality,” he said. “I just don’t see another way to do this job in a way that I could be proud of myself, and feel like I’m faithful to my oath of office.” 

During his interview for the commission seat with the mayor, he tried to make clear to her that he would not be in the mold of commissioners that Breed has appointed in the past. 

“I think I said, like, three or four times, I cannot justify the time away from my family to do this time-consuming job unless it’s going to be about making really big and long-overdue reforms,” Carter-Oberstone said. 

The mayor’s office declined to comment on the record for this story. 

Though he was raised in the city, attending K-12 within a few-block span in the Haight-Ashbury, Carter-Oberstone said his introduction to public office in San Francisco was “disorienting.” 

“You are surrounded 360 degrees by people telling you, ‘Oh, no, this is the way things have always been done. This is the way you’re supposed to do them,’” he said over coffee in the Mission District earlier this year. “Everyone around you seems to be in consensus on something that is just so clearly unethical — or illegal.” 

He pointed to the mayor’s undated resignation letters and the police department’s secret bureau orders as examples. 

An unusual commissioner

Others involved in pushing San Francisco toward effective police reform see his arrival on the scene as not only impactful, but rare. 

“He’s so unusual, he’s so different,” said former police commissioner Angela Chan. Once an outspoken reform-minded commissioner herself, Chan was not voted in for a second term, and now works for the Public Defender’s office. “Up until Max, basically, I had never seen a mayor appointee vote their conscience and not just rubber stamp what the mayor wants them to do.” 

The majority of the commission is appointed by the mayor, so its leadership and practices often tend to align with her policy stances. The volunteer civilian commission is responsible for passing policies for the SFPD, and hearing cases of officer misconduct, but it has been seen in the past as ineffective in advancing police accountability, or of working on the mayor’s behalf

Chan sees Carter-Oberstone as a thoughtful commissioner of a different caliber, particularly compared with those who don’t do their homework or engage substantively in the mission of the powerful oversight body. 

For those who know Carter-Oberstone well, this is no surprise. 

“He’s a super thoughtful person, he’s hardworking and committed … Just the kind of person you want on a police commission,” said Barry Friedman, an NYU law professor and Founding Director of the NYU Policing Project. Before he came to work on San Francisco policing, Carter-Oberstone was a fellow there. 

When Carter-Oberstone landed the Police Commission seat in late 2021, Friedman was certain that his experience being “around policing, kind of nonstop” in the months prior would enhance his contributions to San Francisco. 

In his day job as an appellate lawyer with corporate law firm Orrick, Carter-Oberstone works on cases for big-name companies while maintaining a load of social justice-oriented cases that he does on his own time. His cases include patent suits for Apple, and appealing immigration cases for foreign nationals facing deportation and human rights abuses in their home countries. 

“I think of Max as sort of the consummate litigator, who always has his eyes on the ways in which we can use law to make a difference in the world,” said Joshua Rosenkranz, who leads the team Carter-Oberstone works for at Orrick. 

And so, after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in 2020, Carter-Oberstone gravitated toward the Policing Project, and put his regular job on hold, realizing a rare opportunity for reform after a massive shift in public opinion. 

“I felt like I could make the biggest difference doing this work,” Carter-Oberstone said. During his year as a Policing Project fellow in 2021, he wrote model legislation for police officer decertifcation and pretextual traffic stops, both top-of-mind local reform topics. 

That move got the ball rolling on what turned out to be the busiest year of his life. By November of 2021, he was sworn in as a police commissioner in his hometown. By May, he had published a draft policy for ending often racially motivated pretext stops, during which police officers use a minor violation, such as a broken taillight or fuzzy dice hanging from a rearview mirror, as a pretext to stop a driver and look for evidence of further crimes.

These stops are a big driver of police interactions with the public, and Carter-Oberstone had become familiar with the topic at the Policing Project. Through late summer and fall of 2022, he and his colleagues hosted working group meetings and sessions with community members, and in January of this year, the policy was passed.

Making a difference

“I didn’t really have any hobbies in my life in 2022,” said Carter-Oberstone reflecting on working for a corporate law firm, developing the historic traffic enforcement policy, and raising his 3-year-old son. “It was a really, really busy year, the hardest I’ve ever worked.” 

Though Carter-Oberstone said he has always been drawn to government service, he found his past forays into politics and government disillusioning or too abstract. He was a legislative aide for a state senator, and spent another stint in a competitive fellowship at the Solicitor General’s office, slowly chipping away at defending California laws. 

But on a city commission, he realized he could make real, immediate change. 

“That was a big selling point for me,” Carter-Oberstone said of the relative immediacy of passing a policy for the SFPD. “Like, if you do a good job here, you can make people’s lives better in a very, very direct and tangible way.”

It’s no coincidence that the relatively quick passage of the historic pretext stop policy in January also rubbed the mayor the wrong way. But what is perhaps surprising is that, despite the mayor’s opposition, Police Chief Bill Scott said publicly that he supported it. 

Before the Board of Supervisors in December, Breed spoke out against the policy as prioritizing reform over public safety, and accused an “unelected” body, the majority of which she appointed, of stepping out of its lane. 

(A year prior, Breed had lauded Carter-Oberstone as “a tireless advocate” whom she said “knows what changes need to be made in order to help improve our City.” Five months later, she reappointed him.)

Carter-Oberstone, whose mother is Black and whose father is white, not only took into account the data that shows the racial disparities in traffic stops but, like any other Black man in America, has had his own run-ins with questionable policing tactics. 

As a young man, he and a friend were pulled over and harassed when his friend was driving just two miles over the speed limit. 

“We were taken out of the car and pat searched, and the K-9 unit came out, and, like, four squad cars came out, and we were told we could be taken to jail,” Carter-Oberstone said, remembering the officer’s hand on his gun during the interaction. 

The friend driving was Black, and nothing was found in the car. 

“This will date the situation. But he patted my cargo shorts and asked me, ‘what is that inside?’ And the answer was a BlackBerry,” Carter-Oberstone said, chuckling. 

Though the interaction did not escalate and Carter-Oberstone can laugh it off today, many other people of color end up in far more compromised situations. His own mother, who struggled with drug addiction through his childhood and ended up abandoning Carter-Oberstone and his sister when they were young children, was incarcerated for drug dealing after a traffic stop.

Even though his mother faded out of his life starting from when he was five, Carter-Oberstone said his devoted single father, a University of San Francisco statistics professor, made his upbringing relatively stable and normal. He attended the French American International School, and later Urban School of San Francisco for high school. Carter-Oberstone’s sister is a popular fashion designer. Both siblings are estranged from their mother, who lives in Southern California.

The policy to abandon pretext stops and ban a few specific traffic stops in San Francisco, despite Breed’s opposition, was passed by the Police Commission, with Carter-Oberstone’s vote and those of Board-appointed police commissioners. 

But it wasn’t a simple mayor vs. Board split: Even mayor-appointed commissioner Debra Walker said that she would support banning the stops if Police Chief Bill Scott’s eleventh-hour edits were accepted. (Last month, they were, and the commission passed the policy unanimously.)

Building bridges and pissing people off

“Getting things done requires not just the idea, but the strategy, and being able to be a bridge-builder,” said Samara Marion, the former policy head of the Department of Police Accountability. She remembered Carter-Oberstone bringing in a former police chief from North Carolina to speak at a Police Commission meeting in January. Harold Medlock spoke of his successful efforts to reform traffic enforcement and improve public safety outcomes, despite initial resistance within his department. 

Carter-Oberstone even engages the Twitter trolls: With a healthy bit of sass, he has occasional back-and-forths with known online antagonists and anonymous trolls, where he attempts to address misinformation

“You can almost hear the spaghetti sliding down the wall [with] all these random charts you’ve thrown out that have nothing to do [with] this policy. Here’s the truth: these stops result in arrests/guns at a fraction of a [percent],” Carter-Oberstone wrote in one tweet, defending his traffic stop policy. 

And although fellow mayor-appointed commissioner Walker suggested Carter-Oberstone’s approach is sometimes “adversarial,” she admitted he listened to the involved parties and worked to compromise on the traffic policy. 

“It turned out good,” Walker said. Though she was not present for the vote, she said she was supportive of the controversial policy since the chief appeared to support it. 

Former supervisor and Breed-appointed commission president Malia Cohen, who overlapped with Carter-Oberstone for his first several months on the commission, called him “very thoughtful, very smart.” 

He managed an impressive feat, after all: Getting the chief of police on board with a controversial policy, while making enemies at the mayor’s office and the police union

“I think it’s fair to say it was — I guess, depending on who you ask — a horrible mistake,” Carter-Oberstone said about his role at the Police Commission, but he said he will serve out his full term, which ends in 2026. 

He has plenty left on that horizon: He wants to fill the long-vacant policy position at the commission office, and is working on the First Amendment policy for the department. He admits that he doesn’t fully understand the staffing issues at the SFPD, so that is at the top of his list. 

Later on, he’ll start thinking about extending his stay on the commission. 

“Not sure if the next, or current, mayor will be super pumped to renominate someone like me,” he said. “But we’ll just cross that bridge when we get there.” 

And, though he has the skills and platform that could launch him into a political career, Carter-Oberstone calls himself an introvert and insists he has no political aspirations. 

“I don’t want to give a ton of speeches and attend a bunch of social events and, you know, rub elbows with folks,” Carter-Oberstone says. He contemplates the prospect of being “locked in a dark room” by a hypothetical campaign manager and forced to make calls to raise money. 

“Also, I think I’ve destroyed my political career — if I had one — by managing to piss off so many people so quickly.” 


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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. Thank you for writing this article. We finally have someone that is making the Police Accountable. He has integrity and he actually wants to make a difference unlike Yee and Byrne who is obviously there for the Mayor’s bidding. Commissioner Max, Elias, Yanez and Benedicto are finally doing what the Commission is supposed to do. Please continue to write about them. Thank you

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  2. Max Carter-Oberstone is the real deal – smart, intellectual and courageous. Max has a working moral compass. Whereas, the Mayor who appointed him and her hand-picked DA give Lombard Street a run for its money. Da Mayor needs to stop [sic]“commentating” and start working for the people of San Francisco. She is a poor man’s Willie Brown – and that ain’t good. Run for office Max Carter-Oberstone – San Francisco turns its lonely eyes to you.

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  3. Thank you, Eleni, for such a great article. Max Carter-Oberstone is a breath of fresh air in SF politics.

    We need more people like him in leadership directing important government policies. The SFPD is becoming a better institution for the public because of him.

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  4. Max Carter-Oberstone is the kind who is obviously ‘A rare breed”.. , because his lack of timidity is equaled by his analytical ability and legal training .
    This city is corrupt as hell and Max would make a great Supervisor, … Better would be if
    some Foundation would hire him to be its “Free Range” Ranger, assigned only to examine , with a microscope how the City really works, compared to how, ideally, it COULD work… He, for starters, could invite the public to contact him, anonymously, or not, with their examples of corruption…. and also : examples of rampant “governmental bloat” and “lack of concern for “governmental waste”.

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  5. When we passed Prop H in 2003, we were told by the SFPOA that commission seats would be passed around like doobies by corrupt electeds. To a certain extent that was the case, like when Theresa Sparks was appointed as a good will gesture to ensure Ammiano and Haaland’s advancement.

    David Campos did his usual potted plant imitation early on, the one that had caught Arlene Ackerman’s eye, and proceeded to warm a seat to prove to power that he could be trusted, and was similarly nonproductive on the commission as on the Board. Power never trusted David Campos.

    The hard work we did to beat the SFPOA at the ballot box 20 yr ago was vindicated by appointees like Carter-Oberstone, a regular citizen who put the best interests of the city first when managing a contentious department all while blowing the whistle on Breed’s undated letter of resignation form of corruption.

    Contrast this to the hack devoid of experience or knowledge of corruption that Stefani and Dorsey installed at the Ethics Commission, ousting ethics guru Larry Bush from the panel.

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    1. Almost forgot, David Campos begat corporate law buddy and domestic batterer the late Julius Turman onto the Police Commission to warm the seat and look important.

      Passed around like a doobie.

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    2. Thank you and very well stated. Theresa Sparks is/was strictly law and order. David Campos was strictly out for himself and continues to be. May they both continue their fade to oblivion.

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  6. What are the orders the chief issued? I understand and appreciate the process issues here and they are relevant regardless of the substance of the orders. But, it’s weird to not include this info in this discussion. Surely, it would provide insight into why the chief chose this route and the main issue is transparency. Are the orders not available to Mission Local or anyone else? If so, wouldn’t that be an issue all by itself? Please, ML, at least let us know why we can’t have this info.

    Thanks for your work and i am grateful for the info you have gathered and reported on so far.

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  7. Thank you Max for bucking politics and not making nice to climb ladders. You are a badass! Wanna run for mayor or DA? Just kidding… kind of…
    Breath of fresh air. We need more courage from our leaders and we need smart people who aren’t afraid to speak truth to power. Great profile Eleni!

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  8. In a world of Elon Musks, London Breeds and Brooke Jenkinses, be a Max Carter Oberstone. I have immense respect and appreciation for this stellar young man. Breed grossly miscalculated when she (and her messengers) called him “a liar “ publicly and in the press. Self inflicted wound by Breed. What in the world was she thinking?

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  9. Well, I’d sure vote for him — I think a whole lot of people would.

    I do totally understand why he wouldn’t want to run this city, though. For now, I am so glad we can have faith in at least one person in our city government.

    Thanks for this article. Seriously, the best and most hopeful piece anyone has written all week.

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    1. If one comes into office not being invited by The City Family mafia, then one runs the strong risk of being whacked. Ed Jew. Leland Yee. Tony Hall. Ross Mirkarimi. Chris Daly. Eric Mar. Mark Sanchez.

      They even tried to whack Peskin a few years ago. The risks of running and winning without kissing ass are that the people who control the police department, District Attorney and judges will not be pleased. I love San Francisco but would not want to die in prison trying and failing to save it.

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    2. Agreed 100% with all of this. Thank you Eleni for a fantastic article, and thank you Max Carter-Oberstone for your service.

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