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How Police Reform Is Failing in San Francisco

By Paris, Vice Op-Ed

Cops in San Francisco aren't getting the same level of scrutiny as in cities like Baltimore and Ferguson. Is a bit of federal criticism really going to change anything?

"All niggers must fucking hang."

"White power."

"Niggers should be spayed. I saw one an hour ago with 4 kids."

These words weren't uttered by Klansmen in 1960s Mississippi. They weren't a chant overheard at some racist skinhead revival. They weren't even spoken by average citizens in a spate of Donald Trump-induced bigotry.

These sentiments were privately shared among cops in San Francisco within the past five years.

Twice now—once in March 2015 and again this April—troves of texts and other communications from San Francisco police officers have revealed unsettling racism and homophobia in the rank and file. Add to that 11 police-involved fatalities between May 2013 and May 2016—nine of which involved people of color—and it's easy to see why the San Francisco Police Department was subject to a scathing Department of Justice review last week for allegedly discriminating against people of color in a systematic way.

For those of us who've had encounters with cops in San Francisco—deserved or otherwise—this comes as no surprise. We've long known the department was lacking; now it's official. The true test will be what happens in the non-binding report's wake, and given that the feds have been reluctant to even call the department's actions straight-up racist (as they did in Baltimore this summer), it's hard to be optimistic.

Needless to say, the sentiments espoused in those text messages don't inspire confidence that the SFPD can turn things around. "It's highly unlikely [the] SFPD can reform itself," as San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi said last week. Still, the DOJ review itself was conducted by its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) and initiated at the behest of Mayor Ed Lee and former Chief Greg Suhr after the police killing of Mario Woods. And the report details 94 findings and well over 200 non-binding recommendations intended to help the department rectify its shortcomings.

According to the feds, the department has a myriad of problems, including those relating to issues with transparency and bias, accountability, data collection, and internal oversight and hiring. (The report also chronicles apparent efforts by the San Francisco Police Officers Association to thwart the implementation of reforms.) Perhaps most glaringly, even though blacks comprise less than 6 percent of San Francisco's population at this point, the DOJ report found that 37 percent of the department's nearly 550 use-of-force incidents over the last three years—and nearly 15 percent of its traffic stops—involved African Americans.

It's worth noting that the SFPD is nearly equal parts white and minority, which lends credence to the idea that racial prejudice is an inherent characteristic of policing in America. Indeed, if a diverse department in a diverse city (San Francisco is nearly half Asian and Latino) routinely exhibits racial bias as it metes out justice, what hope is there for the remaining 16,000 or more agencies nationwide—many of which are mostly white—to be any better?

Nevertheless, Mayor Lee and interim Police Chief Toney Chaplin maintain that the SFPD is committed to implementing every recommendation in the report, and cite the rollout of body cameras, a new use-of-force policy, and implicit bias training and sanctity of life practices as evidence the department is moving in the right direction.

The problem, according to the Police Body-Worn Cameras Scorecard and as evidenced by individual cases where body-camera-toting cops shot and killed unarmed people, is that the adoption of new technology in departments nationwide is sporadic, and any attendant accountability less than automatic.

The SFPD's General Order on Body-Worn Cameras explicitly requires officers to "activate their BWC equipment to record" detentions and arrests, consensual encounters, traffic and pedestrian stops, vehicle and foot pursuits, uses of force, searches, arrest warrants and more. However, that same order outlines no definitive penalty for officers who opt to not active their cameras, effectively rendering the entire exercise moot when attempting to measure officer culpability in matters of potential misconduct. Why not include a criminal penalty for officers accused of brutality (or worse) who don't activate their cameras? Or mandatory firing, at least?

We've all seen just how little progress has been made, with the killings of Keith Lamont Scott, Philando Castile, and others serving as a constant reminder that police reform still has a long way to go in America. Even the police department in Ferguson, Missouri, which has supposedly binding reforms detailed in legal settlements as a result of the DOJ's civil rights division review (unaffiliated with the COPS Office that conducted the SFPD report), remains mired in racial tension and is dangerously understaffed. And the governor's race in Missouri is basically a fight between two white dudes about who's tougher on crime and who's more supportive of cops.

One would expect an assumed bastion of progressive ideals like San Francisco to do better. Sadly, it hasn't.

The recorded killing of Woods, a 26-year-old black man shot by several cops on the street after brandishing a knife, remains a point of contention for many concerned with police malfeasance, and was a key impetus for the COPS Office review. Even if the officers involved are never charged, I see the Woods killing as akin to murder—if someone who wasn't a cop did this, it would almost certainly be treated like one—as evidenced by unedited video documentation. The case has come to exemplify for many of us in the Bay Area just how unjust the justice system can be. The fact that no one has been made to answer for this man's death, and that the police who ended his life quickly went back on the job, only serves to deepen the sting of this latest flimsy report.

Besides, the San Francisco Police Officers Association—the group whose official positions are often reflexively conservative and unsympathetic to concerns of those citizens the SFPD routinely targets—has shown zero interest in attempting to mend relations with the minority community. Leadership even went so far as to formally denounce San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's protest of police misconduct.

There is at least a small ray of hope, though, as some officers nationwide seem to be waking up to the fact that past mistreatment by the police has helped fuel a deep mistrust of law enforcement within predominately black and Hispanic communities. The apology from the president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police on Monday, who nodded to the "role that our profession has played in society's historical mistreatment of communities of color," is an encouraging sign, at least.

But for many of us in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's hard to shake off a deeply pessimistic outlook about prospects for police reform. After all, the DOJ's review of the SFPD is non-binding, comprised of only recommendations. Without regulatory teeth that bite, the question of "who polices the police?" remains more relevant here than ever.

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