Short of members for nearly a year, San Francisco’s Police Commission could soon be whole again after two mayoral nominees moved forward in the appointment process Tuesday.
Mayor London Breed named immigration attorney James Byrne as her latest choice for the seven-member oversight panel, while the Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to confirm another mayoral nominee, Chinatown community leader Larry Yee.
Byrne, a San Francisco native and the child of Irish immigrants, has defended thousands of immigrants against deportation and in other cases since establishing a law office in San Francisco back in 1983. He is a longtime volunteer at the Irish Immigration Pastoral Center Immigration Clinic in the Richmond and also represents Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants pro bono.
Breed described Byrne as an “experienced attorney with a proven track record of looking out for the most vulnerable members of our community by offering his time and energy to improve the lives of others.”
“I’m confident that he will bring that integrity and a commitment to supporting underserved communities to the Police Commission,” Breed said in a statement announcing the nomination.
Yee, also born and raised in San Francisco, is president of the Hop Wo Benevolent Association and a longtime labor leader with the Communications Workers of America Local 9410.
He is being held up as a voice for the Chinese community on a panel that has no Chinese representatives.
“It’s critical to have someone who knows our communities well sitting on the Police Commission and advocating for our communities,” said Supervisor Connie Chan.
Charged with setting police policy and imposing discipline against officers, the Police Commission has had at least one empty seat since two members left at the end of their terms last April.
Breed initially sought to fill the vacant seats with prosecutor Nancy Tung and attorney Geoffrey Gordon-Creed, but the Board of Supervisors rejected the nominees during the fervor over the killing of George Floyd out of concern that they were not the right leaders to drive police reform.
The Police Commission briefly had six members after Breed tapped former Supervisor Malia Cohen to take one of the empty seats, but the sudden resignation of Commissioner Damali Taylor last December brought the panel back down to five bodies.
Breed is now betting on Byrne and Yee to clear the Board of Supervisors. On Tuesday, Yee did just that despite some apprehension that he lacked experience on police reform.
Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who led the push to reject Tung and Creed last summer, said she had to balance the need for confirming experienced police reform advocates on the panel with her desire for a Chinese representative amid rising concerns about crimes against Asian Americans.
She decided to support Yee in part because Breed appointed Cohen to the panel as a police reformer. But Ronen said she would still be expecting Byrne to have a “history of experience in police reform if I’m going to support [him] going forward.”
“This was a struggle for me,” Ronen said. “I just wanted to share my thinking so as to not be accused of being inconsistent.”
Supervisor Myrna Melgar agreed that strong police reformers were needed, but said “we also need folks who will help us do the work of cultural change in our city toward a system that relies less on incarceration and more on evidence-based practices that support the lowering of recidivism and giving people a chance.”
“I think Larry is going to do that,” Melgar said. “I think Larry is going to be fair.”
Supervisor Ahsha Safai said Yee’s experience as a labor leader will give him a perspective on negotiation issues between the police union and the San Francisco Police Department.
“One of the things that had been an impediment to much of reform was dealing with the concept of meet-and-confer,” Safai said. “Having someone that knows the labor and negotiation process I think is really helpful.”
Supervisor Catherine Stefani said she is confident Yee would both be a “bridge builder and a champion for progress” on reform.
Yee’s term is expected to end April 30, 2022, while Byrne would serve until April 30, 2024 if he first clears the Rules Committee and then the full board.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated and revised.