Fourth installment in Persyn Law & Policy's retrospective on the Blue Ribbon Panel
The Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Policing held its final public hearing on May 9, 2016. Panel judges heard preliminary findings from the working group leaders first. Spirited public comment followed. The San Francisco Chronicle had the story:
SFPD unaccountable, uses ‘stop and frisk,’ D.A.’s panel says
By Vivian Ho
Updated 10:35 pm, Monday, May 9, 2016
The San Francisco Police Department has outdated policies, engages in “stop and frisk” tactics on the street that have drawn outrage around the country, and does a poor job tracking officers’ conduct so it can root out problems, according to a blue-ribbon panel of judges created by District Attorney George Gascón to investigate bias in the police force.
Police officials said they hadn’t seen the panel’s preliminary findings, which were released publicly Monday evening at theAfrican American Art and Culture Complex. Martin Halloran, the head of the police officers union, called the panel’s report an “illegitimate work of fiction” driven by Gascón’s animosity toward police.
But Ray Marshall, an attorney reviewing the department’s culture for the panel, said the problem is with Halloran’s Police Officers Association.
“We find that the San Francisco Police Department is insufficiently independent of the POA,” he said. “In addition to the blurred lines between the two, many believe that the POA’s influence inside and outside the department has been and remains an impediment to dialogue.”
Inconsistent sharing of data
The panel, which is headed by three retired judges and relies on seven law firms for research, said officers do not consistently collect information on people they stop, a practice meant to combat racial profiling and subconscious bias. The data that are available indicate that African Americans and Latinos are stopped and searched in San Francisco at disproportionate rates, the panel said.
The Police Department’s sharing of crime data — including where crimes occur and when and who is arrested — is “inconsistent and insufficient to track potential bias,” said attorney Anand Subramanian, the executive director of the panel. He said the department neither collects nor shares data on officers’ use of force “in a way that allows for auditing.”
The panel did not go into details about many of its findings while promising it will release a full report in the next few weeks. It also did not provide evidence of its assertion that San Francisco police engage in stop and frisk. The term generally refers to officers searching people they consider suspicious in an effort to get illegal guns off the streets — a tactic that drew accusations of racial profiling in New York and other cities.
Battle between D.A., union
The yearlong probe has become a central piece of an escalating political war between Gascón, the former city police chief, and the police union.
While panel officials repeatedly accused the Police Officers Association of stonewalling its efforts and discouraging officers from participating, the union went to the panel to accuse Gascón of making racially insensitive remarks at a dinner in 2010 — though union officials never provided examples of the purportedly offensive remarks. The district attorney said he “categorically” denied the accounts.
Union leader blasts findings
On Monday, in response to the release of the preliminary findings, Halloran issued a statement calling the panel’s findings “biased, one-sided, and illegitimate.”
“Gascón handpicked his own panel, and refused to hear from any witnesses who disagree with him, and so Gascón’s report should be filed in the fiction section of the library,” Halloran said. “Since George Gascón is afraid to hear from anyone who disagrees with him, he blocked the testimony of anybody who isn’t in lockstep with him. We offered testimony from minority police officers who disagree with Gascón’s view that widespread bias exists in the department, but he censored their testimony.”
After learning of Marshall’s finding about the POA, union adviser Nathan Ballard said, “Had they sought to understand the situation, they would have discovered that the union enjoys a functional working relationship with the leadership of the department that includes episodes of disagreement and periods of relative harmony.”
‘A serious problem here’
Gascón defended his efforts to improve the Police Department, saying, “There are separate independent investigations under way, protests nearly every day and people starving themselves (in hunger strikes) in response to the disparity in how this department treats minority communities. It’s essential that SFPD institutes the reforms they need — and not just the ones they want.”
Police Chief Greg Suhr, who has resisted recent calls from activists for his resignation, said that while he had not seen the preliminary report, he is committed to sharing it with the U.S. Department of Justice’s community policing division, which is conducting a collaborative review of the San Francisco force.
Gascón formed the panel after racist and homophobic text messages, allegedly exchanged between 14 officers, were made public through federal court filings. Recently, a second, separate set of officers was implicated in the exchange of bigoted texts.
The panel consists of former California Supreme Court Associate Justice Cruz Reynoso, former Santa Clara County Judge and former San Jose police auditor LaDoris Cordell and former federal Judge Dickran Tevrizian Jr. All agreed to work for free, as did the law firms.
“This panel is going to issue some recommendations that are going to be broad and comprehensive, and we hope will bring transparency and instill confidence within the police department,” Tevrizian said Monday.
“For anyone to deny that you have a problem is foolishness. There is a serious problem here and a serious problem in other jurisdictions as well.”
Suzy Loftus, Police Commission president, said she is committed to reading the report and taking the findings into consideration. “I believe a lot of the reforms we currently have under way will address these issues,” she said.
The blue-ribbon panel released its findings on the same day the Department of Justice’s community-policing division weighed in on efforts by the Police Department and Police Commission to revamp use-of-force policies for officers.
Killing of man in Bayview
Those policies came under scrutiny after the Dec. 2 police killing of a stabbing suspect, Mario Woods, in the Bayview neighborhood. City officials have said the officers who shot Woods were protecting themselves and bystanders from an armed, intoxicated man who refused to obey commands, but video showed Woods was shot even though he was shuffling slowly along a wall and did not directly threaten the police.
The Justice Department offered line-by-line critiques of the proposed policies and also offered broader suggestions, many from President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
Police should consider a policy in which officers seek “alternatives to arrest” in some situations as a way of de-escalating dangerous encounters, the federal agency said, and policies that “mandate external and independent criminal investigations” of all incidents in which officers shoot people. Currently, the city district attorney’s office investigates fatal police shootings in San Francisco, but the Police Department is the lead investigator.
Questioning Taser limits
The Justice Department did not offer a definitive judgment of the controversial police proposal to give officers Taser stun guns, but gave suggestions if San Francisco decides to go that route. The weapons are used in many other cities as a less lethal alternative to firearms, shooting a pair of electrode darts that can incapacitate a person.
For instance, the federal agency said San Francisco should force officers who use their stun guns to document the case in a special report, while putting a limit on the number of times an officer may shock a person in a single encounter.
The Justice Department also questioned why the city would prohibit officers from using a Taser in what is known as “drive stun” mode, saying such a use is often “appropriate and reasonable” during hand-to-hand combat — or after a person pulls the electrode darts from his skin or clothing.