As hunger strike continues, confidence in police reform dwindles

Mayor Ed Lee and a group of five hunger strikers calling for the firing of Police Chief Greg Suhr spoke by phone Thursday for the first time during the activist’s two-week fast. But between politicians implementing police reforms and activists who say they have not done enough, an impasse remains.

The heart of those reforms will be in new policies meant to reduce the number of police killings.

Several observers say the San Francisco Police Department has a weak track record of following through with reform and the only thing that will bring real change is continued pressure from the streets.

“The only thing that works, when you have a department and its leadership in denial about the existence of the problem, is pressure,” said longtime police watchdog and former ACLU lawyer John Crew. “It’s the only thing that [works].”

Since the Dec. 2, 2015, killing of Mario Woods by police officers, an almost constant pressure has been applied to Suhr and the mayor who backs him. That pressure materialized most recently at Wednesday’s Police Commission meeting on use-of-force reform, which was delayed by interruptions from protesters. The pressure on the Police Chief was also evident the day before in a march on City Hall, during which the five hunger strikers — known as the “Frisco 5” — confronted the Board of Supervisors.

The distrust of current department leadership and their ability or willingness to put reforms into place comes from more than a simple desire for the chief’s head, Crew noted.

If past reforms have fallen through the cracks, there is little reason to trust that new policies will be enforced, said Crew, especially with a police chief who has led the department during an especially tumultuous time.

“You can do policy reform, but it doesn’t mean much if you don’t enforce the policy,” Crew said.

The new use-of-force reforms center on de-escalation techniques, which emphasize the avoiding violent confrontation and the sanctity of human life. Suhr has said many times recently that such policies are important in reducing fatalities.

But in the case of Luis Gongora, a homeless man who was fatally shot by officers in the Mission District within seconds of their arrival on the scene, no such rules seem to have been followed, said Crew.

De-escalation techniques — such as “time and distance,” which instructs officers to slow down and keep distance between themselves and suspects who are solely a risk to themselves in the name of safety — have been in place since 2011.

Suhr touted as much in his Police Officers Association Journal column last month.

“I argue that taking a thoughtful perspective of risk (creating time and distance, when feasible) is not asking an officer to accept more risk. In fact, it is actually quite the opposite — I say if an officer is exposed to less risk, he/she will need less force to overcome the lower risk!… and in so doing be safer.”

But Police Commissioner Victor Hwang conceded the commission should do a better job at making sure the department follows policy.

“I think that we need to do a better job in terms of enforcing our existing policies,” he said.

Former Police Commissioner Angela Chan said only the policies the department brass wants put into place get priority, no matter what the commission says.

“It depends on if it’s a priority for the police department,” Chan said. “If it’s a priority for SFPD, they can put people with the authority and background on implementing it, to get it done faster. But I’ve rarely seen it get done in the areas that I work on.”

Department bulletins with explicit orders — such as the one issued by Suhr recently ordering all officers to carry a 36-inch baton — are sent to The City’s police stations. But Chan says there’s no guarantee that the orders are followed.

Despite ongoing concerns over police reforms, Lee reassured the “Frisco 5” on Thursday that he is pushing ahead, but has no plans to fire Suhr.

“Mayor Lee contacted the group [Thursday] to let them know that he respects their right to protest, but hopes they will do so in a way that doesn’t harm themselves,” mayoral spokesperson Christine Falvey wrote in an email. “He wanted to have a dialogue about police reforms and the enormous effort underway to reform the Police Department, including his call for a top to bottom review by the U.S. Department of Justice.”

Lee’s office also said the mayor told “Frisco 5” hunger striker Ilyich Sato that “reforming the police department is bigger than any one chief and that this chief, mayor and police commission are fully embracing and leading the efforts to reform the department with the community and under the full review of the U.S. Department of Justice.”

The message gave little hope to one of the hunger strikers reached by phone Thursday.

“That man will let us die in these streets,” Edwin Lindo said. “He made that very clear.”


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