Police car and yellow tape. File photo
File photo by Daniel Mondragón

After a 5-2 vote on Wednesday evening, the San Francisco Police Commission will take the creation of a new social media policy out of the police department’s hands, sending a firm message about who sets policy for the SFPD. 

As part of the resolution it passed on Wednesday, the commission also ordered Police Chief Bill Scott to rescind two “bureau orders” issued in recent months by the SFPD. These unofficial policies, commissioners say, were created without the civilian body’s knowledge or approval

“I want to be clear that this resolution is a statement of disapproval from this commission,” said Commissioner Kevin Benedicto at Wednesday evening’s commission meeting. “It should be a clear and unambiguous message that we don’t want this to happen again.”

The bureau orders in question set policies for police officers working undercover and carrying out social media investigations. They were crafted without going through the official policy-creation process that includes civilian oversight. 

The creation and implementation of significant policy without involving the Police Commission was interpreted by the civilian oversight body as an attempt to sidestep its authority, and induced much rancor. The two bureau orders will be rescinded when the commission enacts official policies on the two topics.

The issue of “secret” policy-making through bureau orders was first raised in a presentation from the Department of Police Accountability’s policy director, Janelle Caywood, in April. Caywood spoke out against the practice at the time, calling it a “very concerning” trend being used as a “workaround” that undermined the official process. 

The resolution to rescind the two orders was proposed by Commission Vice President Max Carter-Oberstone last month, but failed to pass in a 3-3 vote, with Cindy Elias, the commission president, absent. 

The version passed on Wednesday uses softer language — claims that the bureau orders were “illegal” were removed — but takes the extra step of removing the social media policy creation from the SFPD’s leadership. 

With Elias’ vote and a switched vote by Commissioner Debra Walker, the new resolution passed.

“It sends a clear message that this conduct will not be tolerated, and provides a real deterrent to this ever happening again,” Carter-Oberstone said Wednesday. 

Elias, who was not present for last month’s discussion on the bureau orders, appeared anxious to correct the issue and move on.

“The focus, going forward, is: How do we solve it, so that we don’t end up here again?” she said. 

In addition to the apparent overstep of the SFPD’s power, the timing of the two bureau orders raised concerns at the commission. Around the same time that the SFPD was requesting extensions to delay its own official policy-creation process for social media investigations, the commission learned, the department quietly issued a bureau order on social media investigations. 

Wednesday’s resolution shifted the responsibility of writing the new social-media policy away from the SFPD and back to the Police Commission.

And the commission was nearing completion of a revised policy for undercover and plainclothes officers when an SFPD-crafted bureau order was quietly disseminated within the department. That bureau order contradicted both existing policy and the upcoming new policy being crafted by the Police Commission, according to Carter-Oberstone. 

Officers currently are in an “unfair” and “untenable” position, Carter-Oberstone said at Wednesday’s meeting, of having to obey a bureau order that could get them disciplined because it is at odds with an official department policy. 

“We would have never discovered this were it not for Director Caywood,” Carter-Oberstone said. “That’s the type of oversight that the public demands.” 

Chief Scott, though he appeared to disagree with some of the statements made by commissioners, and with elements of Wednesday’s resolution, curtly said that he supported the outcome.

The resolution: PASSED

Police Commissioners voted to rescind two SFPD bureau orders upon completion of their own policies on the same topics.

For (5): Cindy Elias, Max Carter-Oberstone, Jesús Gabriel Yáñez, Debra Walker, Kevin Benedicto

Against (2): James Byrne, Larry Yee

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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. Nice to see the Police Commission finally rearing back on its hind legs.

    Predictably pathetic to see Debra Walker deny accountability for clear illegality by law enforcement brass.

    Being conned into supporting the political rise of opportunistic sociopaths like Mandelman and Walker is what turns people off to participating in electoral politics.

    Why is it that all elected and appointed gays and lesbians are amongst the most conservative amongst us, hardly representative, kinda like drag queens.

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  2. Can you please write an article about how effective Commissioners Oberstone, Elias, Benedicto, and Yanez are and how utterly cringe-worthy Commissioner Byrne and Yee is? It’s obvious they are only there to vote against accountability. They don’t seem to understand the process, no matter how often it is explained. Ten days versus 40 days? That was ridiculous. Yee is only there to repeat the Chief’s stats every week!! Like we are too stupid to hear it. He even thanked the Chief that there was no homicide last week. So do we blame the Chief if there is a homicide? It would be interesting to see how often they helped and sided with the Police instead of doing their job. They are the Mayors puppet

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