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With new beginnings, hope for change

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Mayor Ed Lee, left, announces on Dec. 20 that William Scott, right, will take over as the next chief of the San Francisco Police Department. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)

It is a time of new beginnings.

On Monday, San Francisco is poised to welcome its new police chief, William Scott, who will take over a department that has been beset by troubles and uncertainty.

A deputy chief in Los Angeles, Scott has a reputation as a reform-minded leader, and many observers have expressed hope he will improve morale within the San Francisco Police Department and rebuild trust with certain segments of the community, particularly those in minority neighborhoods. It is encouraging to think he can harness such goodwill at the start of his tenure to make positive changes in the department.

The Police Officers Association, however, might be an obstacle for Scott to overcome. The union publicly favored interim chief and department insider Toney Chaplin for the job, and had been a staunch ally of former chief Greg Suhr, who resigned in May. Suhr’s time as chief was marked by a series of fatal shootings, revelations of racist text messages between officers and a stalemate over use-of-force reforms. The police union’s lukewarm response to Scott’s selection can be seen as a further positive sign that he is an encouraging choice to lead the department in a new direction.

But hazards abound.

Scott takes office three days into Donald Trump’s new administration, and local civil liberties groups have voiced concerns that the SFPD’s ongoing cooperation with the FBI’s anti-terrorism efforts violate city laws and constitutional protections, abuses that could be exacerbated under the new administration.

The San Francisco Examiner reported last week that the American Civil Liberties Union, the Asian Law Caucus and the Council on American-Islamic Relations wrote a joint letter to Mayor Ed Lee, the San Francisco Police Commission and Police Department warning of the growing danger of abuses to city laws through collaboration between the SFPD and the FBI. The letter said, “The election of Donald Trump and his imminent inauguration renders these issues extremely urgent.”

For instance, according to city law, SFPD officers are only allowed to collaborate with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force if there is a reasonable suspicion, not simply a tip. Furthermore, according to the letter, the FBI has said it is common practice for task force members — including SFPD officers — to ask people about their immigration status, in possible violation of The City’s sanctuary city laws.

Scott now inherits these pressures.

Mayor Lee, who earlier this month asserted that San Francisco would refuse to participate in a Muslim registry and would defend The City’s sanctuary city laws despite a possible loss of federal funds, both of which have been threatened by Trump, has not yet publicly responded to the letter.

Scott also begins his job just days after revelations that body camera footage from an officer shooting on Jan. 6 seemed to contradict earlier SFPD accounts of the altercation. The shooting left an unarmed, mentally ill man in critical condition
The video appears to show officers charging the man at his home before shooting him, rather than the suspect charging the officers, as the department initially reported. San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi released the video Wednesday, calling for charges to be dropped against the man based on what the footage showed.

Until then, police had refused to release the video and had denied a public records request by the Examiner, citing the ongoing investigation. Acting Chief Chaplin continued to defended the officers’ handling of the incident at a press conference Wednesday, at which two reporters were removed from the room for apparently not having press credentials. It was an ominous close to his tenure as temporary chief.

On Monday, this will be Scott’s department to lead. It remains to be seen whether he will work to bring the needed institutional reforms that many critics of the department have hoped for, or how effective he will be if he tries.

In these early days of a new presidency, one which has stirred up so much anxiety and expectation, it is tempting to seek powerful positive change from our local leaders. We hope Scott seizes the opportunity and doesn’t disappoint. It’s a lot to ask for, but it’s what The City needs.

Michael Howerton is editor in chief of the San Francisco Examiner.

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