A US Department of Justice report requested by city officials including Mayor Lee that was approved in February and released yesterday describes, in nearly 400 pages with 94 findings and 272 recommendations, a police department in need of immediate change. The speed with and extent to which that change will be undertaken, however, remains unclear: Unlike the binding reforms mandated by the civil rights division of the DOJ, which investigated police departments in Baltimore, Ferguson, and Cleveland this past year, the US Department of Justice investigation into the San Francisco Police Department was conducted by its Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. COPS recommendations are non-binding, although the office will work with SFPD over the next 18 months to assist with their implementation, and they believe the court of public opinion will hold them to it.
Specifically, while the report praises the city and SFPD for opening itself up to their investigation, it criticizes the department's inconsistent policies and training surrounding officers' use of force, further calling out officers for failing to diligently and properly document use-of-force incidents.
Per an executive summary of the report, which is available online, "Although the COPS Office found a department that is committed to making changes and working with the community, it also found a department with outdated use-of-force policies that fail the officers and the community and inadequate data collection that prevents leadership from understanding officer activities and ensure organizational accountability."
In summarizing the findings of the report, the Associated Press writes that of 550 use-of-force incidents over the past three years, 37 percent involved African American people, 35 percent involved white people, and 18 percent involved Latino people — numbers far out of proportion to the ethnic and racial makeup of San Francisco, whose black population, for example, is just 6 percent. In the past three years, there have been 11 fatal incidents involving SFPD officers. Nine of the civilians killed in those incidents have been people of color. Further, black and Latino drivers in San Francisco were disproportionately searched and arrested by police, though they were in fact less likely to be found with contraband.
But despite the bias those numbers would outwardly suggest, and two scandals among officers who sent racist and homophobic texts to one another notwithstanding, the New York Times observes that the report shies away from suggesting that SFPD officers engaged in racist policing. "We are not saying this is a result of any racial animus," the Times quotes COPS director Ronald Davis as saying. Although the report claims that "community members’ race or ethnicity was not significantly associated with the severity of force used or injury arising from an officer’s use of force," that finding is undercut by another, which is that "the SFPD does not capture sufficient data on arrest and use of force incidents to support strong scientific analysis." Managing to address the texting scandal but sidestep allegations of racism, the report refers to the horrific texts as "behavior" that should be "addressed" at an institutional level. “Given the nature of the officers’ open and flagrant behavior," — i.e. the racist texting scandal — "the SFPD should have considered that this may be an institutionalized problem and taken steps to address the behavior from an organizational perspective."
With 2,100 officers, the San Francisco Police Department is among the nation's largest. It is made up of 52 percent white officers, 22 percent Asian officers, 16 percent Latino officers, 9 percent black officers, and 1 percent officers of other ethnicities. “This past year has not been easy for any of us, not for this department or this country,” says Acting Chief Toney Chaplin to the Times. Chaplin replaced Chief Greg Suhr when he resigned his position following the SFPD shooting of Jessica Williams, a black woman who was unarmed and suspected of stealing a car, and he's been said to be a front-runner in the selection process for a new permanent chief of the department.
“The climate has overshadowed many of our accomplishments and achievements," Chaplin also said. "But this climate has also made it clear that it’s not enough to do the normal.” Meanwhile, Chaplin is vying for the permanent job as chief, and an announcement on that front is expected as soon as today.
Mayor Lee signaled his wish to enforce the the COPS recommendations to a T, writing in a press release that "the San Francisco Police Department will accept and implement every, single recommendation. We must restore trust, and these measures are important steps forward." He also cited reforms recommended in the report that are already underway and touted the deployment of officer-worn body cameras, and even turned to the pages of the Chronicle, where he penned an op-ed. There, addressing the reports double-speak surrounding bias, the mayor writes that "This report details the divide between communities of color and the police , a national phenomenon that’s happening right here at home. According to the DOJ, SFPD stops and searches blacks and Latinos at a higher rate than whites. This is unacceptable and needs to stop."
At the outset of the investigation six months ago, Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris expressed optimism despite the reports non-binding element. "[The review] can have teeth is the truth of the matter," he told 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."
Previously: [Update] SFPD Set To Get New Chief Thursday As Feds Release Damning Review Of Department