Feds Launching ‘Comprehensive Review’ of S.F. Police Department

An SFPD squad car. (Todd Lappin/Flickr)

An SFPD squad car. (Todd Lappin/Flickr)

By Alex Emslie
KQED

Update 6 p.m. Monday, Feb. 1:
Officials with the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing services announced a review of the San Francisco Police Department Monday.

But the announcement fell flat for many observers of the SFPD who have joined a growing chorus of calls for a federal civil rights investigation.

The difference between a review by the DOJ’s COPS office and an investigation by its Civil Rights Division hinges on enforcement.

That difference dominated a press conference Monday afternoon where Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr joined the acting Northern California U.S. attorney and COPS office leadership to explain the review.

“It’s a work in progress,” Suhr said. “We look forward to this review and the help of the Department of Justice and doing what we can to rebuild the trust that has been shaken.”

The processes are similar, at least in the beginning, with authorities comprehensively delving into the Police Department’s practices and policies.

But the “collaborative reform” review is voluntary — Suhr called for it shortly after the Dec. 2 shooting of Mario Woods that galvanized longstanding criticism of his department. And it also doesn’t carry with it the threat of enforcement through a federal court that a Civil Rights Division investigation has.

“With our process, it’s voluntary, so they’re not enforced in a court of law,” COPS Director Ronald Davis said. “But I will offer this, they are enforced in a court of public opinion.”

Former DOJ Civil Rights Division attorney Aaron Zisser says that means the city will have to keep a close eye on the process if it expects accountability.

“Accountability is not going to be up to a court,” he said. “It’s going to be the public paying attention over a two-year process.”

Zisser said the Civil Rights Division also draws from attorneys with experience in disability rights cases to enforce better procedures when officers encounter people in a psychiatric crisis, which account for the majority of fatalities at the hands of the SFPD and may have played a role in the Woods shooting.

“There’s just nothing that resembles those kind of remedies [in the COPS review],” Zisser said.

Acting Northern California District U.S. Attorney Brian Stretch said a consultation with the Civil Rights Division took place, and “a decision was made to go forward with collaborative reform.”

He said he couldn’t elaborate on how that decision was made, or who made it.

“How can we the citizens of San Francisco have confidence in this process?” Karen Fleshman with the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition asked, referencing noncooperation of the department and officers’ union in local efforts to examine the SFPD.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón said last week that the department and Police Officers Association had engaged in “a dizzying array of stonewalling tactics” against his efforts to investigate bias, transparency and accountability in city police.

Suhr said that line officers would cooperate with the COPS office review.

“The department has actually asked the Department of Justice to come in,” he said, “and anybody coming with the Department of Justice — coming with the full weight of the Department of Justice — wishes to speak to, that’s going to happen.”

Gascón said Monday that Suhr’s response raised more questions.

“I’m pleased that COPS is performing this review,” he said. “Regardless, the motives of a department willing to cooperate with some efforts at reform but not others concerns me. I believe a civil rights inquiry with enforcement authority is more likely to result in meaningful reforms.”

Mayor Ed Lee, however, welcomed the review as a response to his request last week for a federal probe of the SFPD.

“In the past, the DOJ had to kind of force their way into many cities without the needed cooperation,” Lee said. “This is a collaborative effort. We will give up the information that we have. We will allow ourselves to be exposed by way of practices that we have and the practices that we should end and those that we should adopt.”

Original Post 1:44 p.m. Monday, Feb. 1:
Amid a growing clamor for a federal probe into recent scandals and officer-involved shootings at the San Francisco Police Department, one wing of the U.S. Department of Justice is poised to announce a “comprehensive review” of the SFPD.

But it’s likely the Monday afternoon announcement will not be the independent federal investigation that some city leaders, protesters, legal experts and the family of a man shot and killed by SFPD officers two months ago had in mind.

“This is great in terms of a starting point, but by no means is this the top-to-bottom investigation and analysis the community deserves,” said civil rights attorney Adante Pointer, who is representing the mother of Mario Woods, the 26-year-old black man shot to death by San Francisco police Dec. 2. “We’re happy to see the DOJ is here, but there’s more that we’re asking for.”

Monday’s announcement will include acting Northern California U.S. Attorney Brian Stretch, two officials with the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr.

A stronger federal probe into whether the way the San Francisco Police Department operates routinely violates people’s civil rights appears unlikely at this stage. The Justice Department can do that through what’s often called a “pattern-of-practice” investigation. The DOJ’s Civil Rights Division has brought lawsuits that launched that level of intervention in Baltimore, Chicago, and Ferguson, Missouri, among other major cities.

“This is much less than that,” said Franklin Zimring, law professor at UC Berkeley. “There is a marriage of more than convenience here because what San Francisco needs is someone to take the heat off its chief.”

Zimring said San Francisco police had a very low rate of fatal officer-involved shootings between 2009 and 2012, when he studied use of force in 14 major police departments. But last year, use of deadly force spiked. Separately, the department was forced to deal with a scandal over a group of officers who were found to have exchanged racist and homophobic text messages.

“COPS is going to be helping out the Police Department in two ways: It takes them off the hook from doing something — a lot better than either firing the chief or putting out bold new guidelines,” Zimring said. “It’s doing something without doing a lot, and it’s win-win. COPS looks good and doesn’t invest anything, and the San Francisco Police Department can write a letter explaining that they’re doing something.”

Robert Weisberg, a professor at Stanford Law School, said a voluntary COPS review is the lightest of several actions federal attorneys can take. He said it’s “a kind of mediation” that allows the Justice Department to offer assistance in improving a police department’s programs.

“Sometimes that carries with it the implication that it would be a good idea for the police department to cooperate, otherwise the Department of Justice might take stronger measures,” he said.

Weisberg said stronger action could include an investigation through the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, federal prosecution of individual officers for a particular shooting or incident, court-ordered reform and monitoring (as in Oakland) or a contractual agreement between Justice and the SFPD.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed says a voluntary COPS review isn’t an adequate answer to calls she and other supervisors have made for a federal civil rights probe. She says she still wants that, and thinks an enforcement mechanism is important for the Police Department to change.

“It’s good, but it isn’t completely our request,” Breed said.

Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview neighborhood in which Woods was shot, echoed Breed’s statements.

“What we’ve been calling for is an introspective look into the pattern and practices of the Police Department,” Cohen said. “I just want to make sure that the DOJ is not making an announcement of the COPS office in lieu of the Civil Rights Division. I welcome both to come in.”

The most detailed call for a federal investigation of the SFPD since the shooting came Friday from the Northern California branch of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU’s letter documents concerns over excessive use of deadly force, biased policing, interactions with mentally ill people, and “system failures” around discipline and accountability in the department.

It also calls for a “pattern and practice investigation into the San Francisco Police Department for civil rights violations.”

“Early indications show that this will not go far enough to fix the systemic racism and problems in the San Francisco Police Department,” ACLU staff attorney Micaela Davis said. “We need the strong DOJ investigation in order to have full accountability on those issues. Anything less is not going to be sufficient.”

Davis referenced Mayor Lee’s and Chief Suhr’s less-than-enthusiastic participation with District Attorney George Gascón’s initiative to probe the Police Departments culture and practices.

“We are concerned that the mayor may be using this announcement to take attention away from an ongoing responsibility to cooperate with local efforts and reform,” Davis said.

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