"Can Toney Chaplin Change the Culture of SF Police?" asked SF Weekly earlier this week, and now we know the answer: Yes, if you're talking about the way they engage with the community after police officers shoot someone. The new question, it appears, is if the change is for the better.
Under the leadership of former San Francisco Police Department Chief Greg Suhr, there was one thing you could count on after a police officer shot a citizen: Within days, police would hold a community meeting in the area near the site of the shooting, around the time of day the shooting occurred.
This was, Suhr said many times over the years (and was reiterated by countless SFPD spokespeople), an effort to have as much transparency around the situation as possible, to answer questions on the circumstances of the shooting, and to, as one spokesperson put it to me, to "help heal the trauma" of the event.
Did those meetings achieve those goals? That's arguable — sometimes, in cases where the person who was shot was considered a clear danger (for example, the St Luke's Hospital shooting), the meetings were moderately-attended affairs that focused more on what police were doing to protect residents from future threats.
Other times, as in the shooting of Mario Woods or Luis Gongora, the meetings were more contentious, as cries from members of the community over what's seen as a rising tide of unjustified police shootings drowned out the cops at the podium.
It's been more than a week since a 17-year veteran of the SFPD shot Jessica Williams as officers attempted to remove her from an allegedly stolen car, and a community meeting her death has been conspicuous in its absence. It appears, however, that that event just didn't fall through the cracks in the wake of Chief Suhr's firing — in fact, reports the Chron, SFPD won't routinely hold those meetings any more.
According to SFPD spokesperson Sergeant Michael Andraychak, community members with questions about Williams' slaying won't get a meeting to discuss their concerns, because past meetings “have been unproductive and disruptive."
In a written statement to the Chron, Andraychak said “Community members have expressed concerns to the Police Department that they felt unable to speak at these events." So the solution, according to the police, is not to have them anymore. That way nobody gets to speak, I guess?
It's an odd decision, given Chaplin's stated platform of transparency and reform! It is true, the town hall following Gongora's shooting was a contentious affair, with cries for Suhr's firing from the crowd and an angry statement from Supervisor David Campos. It is disappointing to hear that these harsh words were too much for current SFPD leadership to bear!
Oakland-based civil rights lawyer Adante Pointer would likely share my disappointment. Speaking with the Ex Thursday, he said that "Suhr’s practice to hold town hall meetings was a sign the department was trying to be open, even if at times the information often seemed justify the shootings."
“I would love to see him continue" the town halls, Pointer said, "even if it was couched in ‘This is our story.'"
Perhaps the reason not to have a meeting for Williams is because police have yet to pull together their story — as noted by the Chron and Ex, police have released few details on her May 19 shooting, and even Mayor Ed Lee remains in the dark, he told the Chron Thursday.
“I don’t know what the circumstances were in the Bayview that caused the officer to need to shoot,” Lee said Thursday, noting that “there has to be consequences” for the officer who fired the fatal shots.
“So let’s find out what happened here...What went wrong? Because I think it was, in my view, generally, this was not supposed to happen."
In response, Andraychak says, “I think it’s important to point out that this incident occurred a week ago and is still under active investigation.”
One thing the police department does know, however, is the name of the Sergeant who pulled the trigger. But that, too, has yet to be shared with the public. That's because, reports the Chron, SFPD is "saying it has 10 days from the time of the shooting to do so."
Will that mean a public announcement on the Sunday of the long Memorial Day weekend? That, too, is unclear, as is Chaplin's plan for future post-shooting town halls.
"Town hall meetings play a role in transparency, and we want to keep something like that in order to keep the public informed," Andraychak says.
"Acting Chief Chaplin has stated that he will consider holding a town-hall-type meeting in a case-by-case basis."
But the highly controversial shooting of an unarmed Jessica Williams, the death of whom is why Chaplin has his current position, is apparently not one of those cases. Good to know.