We thought the nightmares and trauma would have eased by now. After all, in the wake of police killings of Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods, Jessica Williams and Luis Gongora Pat, the U.S. Department of Justice developed recommendations for police reform. San Francisco leaders committed themselves to those reforms. Our hopes were high. No more families would be torn apart by police violence; no more moms and dads in tears.
But two years later, the nightmares have not diminished, and from down in the streets, the reforms are nowhere in sight.
In December, with his supervisor in the driver’s seat beside him, a rookie officer shot and killed unarmed Keita O’Neil in the Bayview. In early March, 10 officers killed Adolfo Delgado in the Mission in a barrage of 99 bullets that also risked the lives of many bystanders and residents. In neither case did officers even try to de-escalate. More nightmares and trauma. So much for the promised reforms.
To jeopardize those reforms even further, labor arbitration recently awarded the police union a 9 percent pay raise while demanding no commitment from the department to clean up its act. The San Francisco Police Officers Association and Supervisor Ahsha Safai falsely claimed the union’s bargaining rights were at stake, but the real story is the POA’s determination to weaken, if not altogether block, police reforms in San Francisco.
In the recent contract negotiations, The City’s team proposed that if the union didn’t like any of the DOJ’s recommendations, they would have 14 days to “meet and confer.” If no agreement was then reached, the POA could not further delay the reforms through lengthy arbitration, and The City could proceed to implement them. The City’s proposal was fair and commensurate with the crisis we’re in. The POA rejected it.
This is typical of the POA, which has used labor laws and other bullying tactics to extract concessions from The City and delay reform. They’ve used “meet and confer” and the threat of arbitration to weaken both the body camera policy and the Early Intervention System that flags potential police misconduct. When the San Francisco Police Commission developed its new use-of-force policies, the POA repeatedly attacked the commission chairperson on prime-time TV, then filed a bogus lawsuit. And the latest example? Their present misguided ballot initiative, Proposition H, which overrides the Police Commission and hands policymaking about Tasers to the POA.
This is POA hubris. Rather than focus on their members’ need for decent wages, benefits and working conditions — the prime focus of any responsible union — POA leadership is trying to set policy for The City. Their agenda opposes many of our values in this City of St. Francis in favor of a law-and-order agenda, a la Donald Trump.
And it’s not just about policies and protocols. Even more importantly, the POA has perpetuated and emboldened some of the most racist, homophobic and misogynist elements in the San Francisco Police Department culture.
A few years ago, when then-Sgt. Yulanda Williams bravely called out the SFPD’s racist culture, a fellow officer called her the n-word and a “bitch.” What did POA leadership do but add their own insults, branding her all but a traitor. Later, when even more officers called out the racist behavior of SFPD officers, POA leadership called these responsible whistleblowers “snitches.”
After such bullying by the POA, The City was right to try and scale back the POA’s right to lengthy arbitration, a right San Francisco voters gave to the POA in 1990 after the POA promised to use it only for compensation negotiations. Clearly, that 1990 ballot initiative has had unintended and lethal consequences. Had the POA been serious about police reform, it would have accepted The City’s proposal. Because the POA would not agree, policy decisions affecting police reform fell to an unelected labor arbitrator.
We need to change that controversial 1990 ballot initiative with respect to police, returning policy decisions about police reforms back to democratically accountable leaders rather than leaving them in the hands of unelected arbitrators and an irresponsible, Trumplike POA.
For now, however, we can only dread the inevitable day when someone else is killed in a hail of 99 bullets at the hands of a reckless and unaccountable police department. Sadly, our nightmares seem far from over.
Fr. Richard Smith is the special project organizer at Faith in Action Bay Area. Roberto Alfaro is executive director of Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth.
Editor’s Note: The piece has been updated to reflect an additional author, Roberto Alfaro, and with corrected information on Richard Smith’s occupation.