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Lee makes the right call

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San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, pictured at his inauguration on Jan. 8, 2016 (Mike Koozmin/S.F. Examiner)

Last Sunday, in this space, we wrote The City needed Mayor Ed Lee to push for an independent investigation into the San Francisco Police Department’s killing of Mario Woods and we expressed doubts he would seize the moment to lead during this troubling time.

On Monday, Lee’s office announced he had sent a letter the week prior to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch requesting a federal Department of Justice investigation into the death of Woods, who was killed by police Dec. 2 on a Bayview sidewalk.

Lee wrote to Lynch, “In the past few weeks, our city has grappled with a crisis all too common in so many other American cities — the dissolution of trust between communities of color and law enforcement — following the death of a young, Black man shot and killed by police.”

We applaud Lee for making this call, however late it might have come. It is heartening to hear Lee acknowledge what others have been saying for some time: that Woods’ death and the enmity it has widened between the SFPD and some residents, particularly among communities of color in The City, is indeed a crisis and demands our full attention. Lee was also right to liken this growing rift in San Francisco to similar protests over police actions in other U.S. cities in recent years. We are not immune here, and Lee’s request for an independent investigation is a first step to admitting that San Francisco is committed to treating all its people fairly and that we need outside help.

But this does not get Lee off the hook.

He still must overcome weeks of inaction, as protesters demanding action and Chief Greg Suhr’s firing kept the issue alive. His recent comments that “I think I have done my part” in this matter are galling. Lee is still on notice, but this positive step at least deserves praise.

On Tuesday, Woods’ family attorney John Burris issued a statement supporting Lee’s move, even though Lee was belatedly echoing Burris’ own letter from Jan. 6 to the DOJ requesting federal involvement in the matter.

Burris said he hoped Lee and other city leaders will continue to push for the most transparent and “wide open investigation into the circumstances surrounding the shooting and the policies, procedures and training and let the ‘chips fall where they may.’”

Burris included a statement from Mario Woods’ mother Gwen Woods about Lee’s call for a federal investigation: “It is the right and decent thing to do and a step in the right direction toward healing in the African American and Latino communities,” she said.

We fully support those sentiments. The mayor needed to act and thankfully he did. We are sorry it didn’t happen earlier, but now Lee needs our full-throated support in demanding a full independent investigation. And we hope the Police Officers Association and Police Chief Suhr will get behind the mayor and add their voices to the effort.

A unified stance from all sides of this issue calling for justice can bring meaningful change to The City and ease some of the bad feeling that has festered in the past few weeks. The federal wheels will be slow if they come our way at all, so we must be patient but not too patient.

The value of the mayor’s action will have to be weighed according to the impact it brings. It’s easy to dismiss words as just words, to write off promises as empty, but we also know that words can bring powerful change if they are followed by action. It’s what happens next that matters.