San Francisco Police Academy class No. 251 stood fidgeting and shuffling as their training officers hollered at them to line up straight so the camera could get them all in the photo.
Shoulder-to-shoulder in sky blue shirts and dark blue pants, the 50 men and woman of class 251 stood at attention beside four other recruit classes Thursday in a field yards away from the Diamond Heights facility where they have been training to become police officers.
The largest single group of cadets training at one time in two decades, this cohort will also be the first to have been trained under the San Francisco Police Department’s new de-escalation philosophy and will take to the streets wearing new body camera technology — all meant to transform the department and its tattered public image.
“This is a historic time for San Francisco,” Mayor Ed Lee said to the 240 recruits gathered later that day inside an auditorium with members of the media close by. It is such a time, he went on, because of the transformation of how the department polices The City.
“We are changing what had been done in years past,” Lee said as he stood beside interim Police Chief Toney Chaplin.
For the mayor and the new chief, the effort is as much a political and public relations campaign as one centered on training.
A series of reform efforts put into place by Lee following the killing of Mario Woods in December 2015 — and multiple recent racist text scandals involving officers — are meant to reduce the number of fatal police killings as well as rebuild public trust in the department.
Controversy surrounding San Francisco police swelled this past spring, when officers killed a homeless man in April followed by a woman allegedly driving a stolen car in May, leading to the resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr.
Those reforms include a new use-of-force policy that puts the sanctity of life at its center, body worn cameras that will be rolled out in the fall and a number of other efforts including expansion of the department’s crisis intervention training and implicit bias classes.
With that in mind, Lee reminded the recruits to never forget what they are learning in the academy.
“Over time, you get exposed to things” and attitudes that are counter to what it means to be a good cop, the mayor said. “Never let others take you down.”
All of these reforms are being instilled in the recruits addressed by Lee. But it will ultimately be their performance on the streets that is the true test of how much such training will stick.
Still, some worry that body worn cameras may be selectively used to the advantage of police and that even good policies can be circumvented.
Former ACLU lawyer and police watchdog John Crew has previously raised questions about the department’s new policies meant to reduce the number of fatal incidents since in the past good policies have been passed but not followed by the department.
For Officer Edie “Momma Bear” Lewis, who is class 251’s Recruit Training Officer, the heart of these reforms comes down to simply instilling in her recruits that they are here to help people and serve the citizens of San Francisco.
“They have something to prove and to show the community. This new group of young men and women want to be here. It’s not for a paycheck,” said Lewis. “We are here to serve our community and we have to go out and communicate that and I think some officers have forgotten that.”
One of Lewis’ 50 recruits is Jason Barnecut, 29, of Novato, who joined the department after the bank he worked at was robbed more than once.
“It was a pretty helpless feeling,” said Barnecut, who added his training includes a lot of book learning.
“It’s a lot of school work,” he said. “More than I expected.”
But the most challenging part of the academy isn’t the schooling, or even the new training they are receiving, he said — it’s the driving course.
“For most people it’s been driving,” he said of the hardest part of his training.
Tecia Clifford, 24, of Tracy said she joined the department in part because her father was a cop in another part of the Bay Area.
Both recruits will graduate Sept. 23 and after their field training they will be patrolling the streets of San Francisco.
Whether their training will be any match against “attitudes that fester over time,” as the mayor put it, remains to be seen.