(Mike Koozmin/2014 S.F. Examiner)

District Attorney-launched investigation into racial bias in law enforcement questioned by police and officer union

The San Francisco Police Department and its officer union are again questioning the authority of an investigation into racism in the ranks launched earlier this year by the District Attorney’s Office.

In May, District Attorney George Gascon tapped a three-judge body of distinguished jurists to look into bias in the department following a series of misconduct scandals, the most troubling being a group of police officers who were caught sending racist text messages. Now, the scope, aim, participants and timeline of the ongoing investigation have been revealed in a series of letters that challenge the body’s legitimacy.

The fracas comes less than a week after a cellphone video, capturing the police killing of a black man in the Bayview, has again raised questions around race and policing in The City.

A flurry of letters came after the investigation — known as the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Fairness and Accountability in Law Enforcement — reportedly tried to obtain personnel files and testimony from police officers involved in the racist text message scandal, according to correspondence from the department and the police union.

In two letters sent last month by Chief Greg Suhr and a representative of the San Francisco Police Officer Association, both questioned the authority of the panel.

“We request that you immediately provide us with whatever authority (if any) you believe grants the Panel the power to subpoena officer’s testimony and confidential personnel records,” reads the Nov. 16 POA letter, which did not say if the union planned to take legal actions if their requests are not met.

Suhr, who sent his own letter on Nov. 6, also asked the district attorney similar questions, noted the POA’s correspondence.

The DA responded six days later, explaining the panel’s work, as did the panel.

Panel responds

The head of the panel said its investigation has no authority to subpoena records or compel testimony, but instead is asking for voluntary cooperation in order to get to the root of any existing institutional bias in San Francisco law enforcement.

“My hope is that the department was trying to clear up what the Blue Ribbon Panel’s role and authority was,” said Anand Subramanian, the panel’s executive director.

Subramanian, who works with the research and action institute Policylink, paid for his work through a grant his organization applied for after Mayor Ed Lee refused Gascon’s request for funding.

“Our hope is that they will not be obstructive moving forward,” Subramanian said. “We don’t understand the need to bring in the police
union.” 

In a reply letter to Suhr, the panel made clear its scope and objectives, as well as its independence from the DA and any other city authority. That scope does not include any specific investigation into particular cases of bias.

Subramanian said his body has no power to compel anyone to hand over documents or to testify.

“We don’t have any kind of authority to subpoena records or compel testimony,” Subramanian said, pointing out that some police documents that had not been redacted for personal details were sent to the District Attorney’s Office.

The documents were reportedly returned.

Panel scope

The letters from the DA and the panel also detailed for the first time the scope of the panel’s work and the groups involved.

Eight law firms have agreed to give their time, pro bono, to aid in the panel’s efforts. Each has been tasked to look into separate areas: Stops, searches and arrests; personnel practice; culture; internal discipline; shootings and use of force; crime clearance and data; as well as external oversight.

The panel is asking people in the department and the law enforcement community to voluntarily speak about whether there is bias present and what can be done to end it.

The panel plans to hold its first public meeting on the subject Dec. 15 and intends to invite Suhr.

The panel’s report is due before April 2016.

Racist texts

In all, 14 officers took some part in the text message scandal. Eight officers were recommended for dismissal — one resigned — and a number of others face discipline.

The texts emerged in federal court in the case of former Sgt. Ian Furminger. Furminger and former Officer Edmond Robles both were convicted in a federal corruption trial.

In March a three-pronged task force was launched to separately investigate issues at County Jail, the police crime lab and the text message scandal.

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