News broke on Sunday that the Department of Justice would conduct "[a] comprehensive review of policies & procedures of San Francisco Police Department," and today we learn a little more about the nature of that review, which may come as a disappointment to some who clamored for it.
First, to clarify, though the review is related to the Department's use of force and in part prompted by the December 2nd killing of Mario Woods in the Bayview, it will not specifically examine his death.
Per a press release, what becomes clear is that this is not a civil rights investigation like the ones the Examiner notes were launched in Ferguson, Mo., or Chicago. What the SFPD will receive instead is a "review of the San Francisco Police Department... conducted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services through its Collaborative Reform initiative."
The COPS review, as it's called, is a collaborative one conducted between the DoJ and the SFPD. And, as the Ex quotes COPS Director Ronald Davis, his organization is “not an enforcement arm of the Department of Justice.”
Overseen by the DoJ, COPS will employ a Technical Assistance provider to develop findings and recommendations. While in many cases multiple Technical Assistace providers are used, Hillard Hientze, a Chicago-based consulting firm, is the sole company awarded the contract in this instance.
“Our process is voluntary so they’re not enforced in a court of law,” said Davis. “They are absolutely enforceable in the court of public opinion, which can be just as powerful as a court of law.”
Many had requested a DoJ review, from Mayor Lee to Chief Suhr themselves to the Board of Supervisors and Attorney John Burris, who represents the family of Mario Woods. But some, like Board of Supervisors President London Breed, still want to see more.
“What I’m asking for is specifically an independent investigation into the shooting of Mario Woods,” she noted. “This doesn’t hurt but, we’ll see what happening... there’s a lot of community distrust with the department, and we have to figure out a way to rebuild that trust, and I don’t know what this is gonna do to help with that.”
Former federal DoJ trial attorney Aaron Zisser was also critical of the COPS review, telling the Examiner that it “does not have the teeth” that a Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division investigation might.
The New York Times writes that the review will take 18 to 24 months to complete, and that despite the voluntary nature of the review, "if San Francisco fails to make changes quickly enough... the Justice Department could sue to force an overhaul, as it has done in nearly two dozen cities in recent years."
The Chronicle quotes Supervisor John Avalos as also critical of the voluntary review process. “The Civil Rights Division really should be taking charge here,” he said. “This is a civil rights issue. Are we seeing a pattern in the San Francisco Police Department of quickly justifying officer-involved shootings as within policy? Do we see that people of color get disproportionate treatment with the use of force compared to others? Those are things I think are worth investigating.”
John Burris, however, isn't pessimistic. "[The review] can have teeth is the truth of the matter," he tells SFist. "It depends on the political will of the police chief and the mayor, because there will be an assessment. I spoke to the head of the division, and he told me that, though it's true they don't have enforcement policy, what they've found is that if the city in question is committed to an inward look at itself, then it can be a very positive thing for a city. At the end of the day, the accountability is up to the political leaders of the town, and if they're really interested in changing the [police] culture."