Mayor Pushes SFPD to Fast-Track Use-of-Force Reforms; Chief Calls in Feds

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr says the department is launching several efforts to reform officer use-of-force procedures in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Mario Woods. (Alex Emslie/KQED)

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr says the department is launching several efforts to reform officer use-of-force procedures in the wake of the fatal police shooting of Mario Woods.
(Alex Emslie/KQED)

By Alex Emslie
KQED

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee has set a Feb. 15 deadline for city law enforcement leadership to deliver “any reforms that require new laws or expenditures,” as the Police Department and Police Commission launch multiple efforts examining use-of-force and training policies following the deadly shooting of Mario Woods last month.

The mayor sent a letter to the city’s Board of Supervisors Wednesday urging quick changes to create “a city where no preventable officer-involved shootings occur and where every community feels respected, justly treated and safer.”

Bystander video captured a large group of officers with guns drawn surrounding Woods, a 26-year-old black man, in San Francisco’s Bayview district on Dec. 2. Police say Woods had a knife and was suspected of stabbing someone earlier that day. They say Woods didn’t comply with commands to drop the knife and didn’t respond to pepper spray or multiple barrages of “less lethal” impact rounds. As he began to walk away from the largest group of police, an officer stepped into his path, and five officers fired, according to police.

Attorneys for Woods’ family, who have examined his body, say he appears to have been shot approximately 20 times.

The shooting has galvanized long-standing criticism of racial bias in the San Francisco Police Department. SFPD arrests a highly disparate number of African-Americans and was rocked by several racially charged scandals in 2015, including the exposure of racist text messages sent by a group of officers advocating violence against black people.

There have been sustained calls for Police Chief Greg Suhr’s ouster, and activists plan to protest Lee’s inauguration on Friday.

“The shooting of Mario Woods has for many residents shaken the trust in this city’s Police Department,” Chief Greg Suhr said during a Police Commission meeting Wednesday night. “We understand that we do need to do everything we can do to prevent this from occurring again, including reviewing all policies and procedures.”

Both Suhr and Lee mentioned several efforts already underway. The department recently purchased 54 40mm munitions launchers and 540 impact “sponge” rounds for the weapons, according to city purchasing documents. The department is still researching how riot shields could help officers isolate and disarm suspects carrying knives, Suhr said. He and the mayor are also calling for a pilot of electronic stun guns.

Officers are now required to report whenever they point a firearm at someone as a use of force, and there are efforts underway to expand training around implicit bias, cultural competency and crisis intervention, according to the Police Department.

Many of the changes grew out of meetings with the SFPD’s African-American Advisory Forum, which has been meeting since May of last year on policing issues affecting San Francisco’s black community.

The city has also made two bids for federal guidance and is joining a national police research organization’s efforts to “re-engineer training around police use of force.”

Suhr requested last week that the department launch a “collaborative reform review” with the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services.

“It is a completely independent review,” Suhr said. “We’ve invited them in to look at everything we do and make recommendations as to how we can be the best department we can be.”

Lee directed the department to join the White House’s Police Data Initiative, which is collecting criminal justice statistics from 29 police departments around the U.S.

And Police Commission President Suzy Loftus will join Suhr, a contingent of SFPD brass and city leaders on a trip to Washington, D.C., next week to collect recommendations from the Police Executive Research Forum on changing police use-of-force practices nationwide.

“While we’re opening up this conversation of our use-of-force policies — and PERF is helping us look at those — there’s actually something much bigger happening, which is this question of, ‘Is how we’re doing this at all the best way to do it?’ ” Loftus said. “We’re bringing in experts, because it is something that is of concern to all of us. We want to keep everybody safe. We want to do this right.”

Loftus said groups of two or three police commissioners will also host a series of community meetings throughout the city this month to collect public input in time for the mayor’s deadline.

Some commissioners said they were concerned with such a speedy timeline.

“I’m just wondering whether we can get this done by Feb. 15,” Commissioner Victor Hwang said. “I know the mayor wants to have something done, but it’s not something we can just fix by throwing money at it.”

Commissioner Joe Marshall said he’s committed to changing any policy that would justify the Mario Woods shooting.

“We are on a fast track here, and my only concern is I want to do it right,” he said. “Doing it fast and doing it right — it’s one or the other, so we have to make sure we do both. We gotta do it quickly and we gotta do it right.”

Read the mayor’s letter below. See SFPD’s list of changes implemented and underway here.

Ted Goldberg of KQED News contributed to this report.

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