By Alex Emslie
You could call it a sequel.
Embattled San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr last appeared on KQED’s Forum in July, when he responded to a litany of issues — and some high-profile scandals — involving the SFPD and the chief himself.
Suhr returned to Forum Tuesday morning to face an hourlong discussion of controversies hanging over his police department — some new and some still dogging the chief six months later.
He began by addressing an announcement Monday that the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Community Oriented Policing Services would review the SFPD. If that sounds like strong intervention, well, it could be. But the COPS office isn’t an enforcement wing of the Department of Justice, and city leaders, legal experts and activists said Monday that the collaborative effort Suhr requested falls far short of the civil rights investigation they want.
Critics, in short, say COPS recommendations aren’t enforced through a federal court the way a civil rights “pattern-or-practice” investigation is.
“I intend to enforce it,” Suhr said. “We’re going to fully cooperate. We’ve actually asked for the independent review, and I think it’s important that everybody realize that this is the Department of Justice, and that it is completely independent.”
San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos told KQED separately that the lack of a federal civil rights investigation is disappointing.
“That’s actually not going to sit very well with a lot of people in the community, who are looking at a Department of Justice investigation about how the Police Department quickly moves to justify officer-involved shootings as within policy, and has a few very dubious officer-involved shootings under their belt right now — including Mario Woods, Amilcar Perez Lopez and Alex Nieto at the very least,” Avalos said.
‘Comments Have Been Consistent’
Suhr said his comments on officer-involved shootings “have been consistent with what I know at the time.”
On the Feb. 26, 2015, police killing of Amilcar Perez Lopez, Suhr originally told the public that Perez Lopez charged two officers in plainclothes with a knife raised over his head. When an autopsy came out two months later showing Perez Lopez was shot six times from behind, Suhr changed his story.
“Later on in discussions with the officers, there was discussion that he turned to go after the man that he was originally pursuing with the knife,” Suhr said, “so that was consistent.”
Evidence appearing to contradict Suhr’s initial statements on the Dec. 2 police killing of Mario Woods came out much faster.
At a town hall meeting two days after the shooting, Suhr said cellphone video widely circulated online showed Woods’ hand extend toward a police officer before he was shot. Woods allegedly had a knife and was a suspect in an earlier stabbing.
But when KQED and others analyzed separate cellphone videos, it became apparent that Woods raised his arm only after the first shots were fired, as he seemed to fall backward in reaction to being shot.
“As far as interpreting the video with regard to Mario Woods, depending on who looks at it when you slow it way down, that’s going to be a matter for video experts because it appears to show some things to some people and some things to other people,” Suhr said.
Civil rights attorney John Burris, who is representing Woods’ mother in a federal excessive force lawsuit against San Francisco, slowed down the video and compared the audio sound wave of the first gunshot with when Woods’ arm is seen rising.
“I was disappointed by the comments that he [Suhr] made shortly thereafter,” Burris said, “that sort of suggested he had not seen the video.”
Local Changes Mirror National Shift
Whatever the feds recommend, Suhr said he won’t wait to make changes following the Woods shooting.
One of the most assertive may be a reworking of the department’s use-of-force policies, an effort currently before the San Francisco Police Commission. New policies, which de-emphasize using a firearm when officers confront a suspect with a knife, are expected to come out by mid-February.
“We’re committed to being better,” Suhr said, “and I think across this country you’re going to notice many, many other police departments adopting probably as much change as maybe we ever have in trying to better contend with people with weapons short of firearms with less than a firearm ourselves.”
He’s talking about a national effort on “re-engineering training on police use of force” run by the Washington, D.C.-based Police Executive Research Forum. SFPD joined in shortly after the Woods shooting, and Suhr has made two trips to D.C. to discuss alternatives with police chiefs from across the U.S.
“Since this shooting, we’ve put things in place like a policy that an officer even directs their firearm at a person, that’s a reportable use of force,” Suhr said. “We’ve re-engineered the way we qualify with our firearms to emphasize slowing down, constant threat assessment, minimizing fire. Because even my mother had questions as to why so many bullets in this particular officer-involved shooting of Mario Woods.”
Bigoted Texts Still a Scandal
It’s been almost a year since federal prosecutors revealed a collection of racist, homophobic and otherwise offensive text messages swapped by approximately a dozen SFPD officers. Suhr says he wants to fire them, but nine of the officers successfully challenged being disciplined in court, arguing the department sat on the texts for more than two years before beginning an internal investigation.
Suhr filed a declaration in that case that he was “walled off” from the evidence, but experts find it hard to believe that the chief wouldn’t know about a federal investigation involving dozens of his officers, and the argument failed to convince a Superior Court judge.
“We believe he got it wrong,” Suhr said. “We are appealing, and the only reason that they’re going to remain in that paid status is by order of the court. But they are not back to work, they will not be back to work, they will remain away from the San Francisco Police Department and the citizens of San Francisco.”
Not Cooperating with Another Investigation
While Suhr welcomes and requested the federal review announced Monday, he’s consistently spurned a local review with similar goals, according to the attorneys trying to do it.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón convened a committee of retired judges and pro bono lawyers to investigate transparency and accountability in the SFPD following the racist texting scandal. He said last week the effort was stonewalled at every level — from line officers, their union and the chief — and asked the mayor to direct more cooperation from line officers and the chief. According to a letter obtained by KQED, Suhr directed all officer interview requests to go through their union and indicated that officers should only speak to the attorneys on their own time.
Suhr said he was going to be interviewed by attorneys Tuesday.
“I don’t know how much more I can participate than appearing myself,” he said.