Calls are mounting for San Francisco’s Police Commission — the oversight body in charge of holding police accountable — to resume meeting after officers responded to a protest wearing “Thin Blue Line” face masks in alleged violation of department policy.
Police Commissioners Petra DeJesus and John Hamasaki urged Mayor London Breed on Monday to exempt the body from a city order prohibiting boards from meeting during the coronavirus crisis. While other boards have been granted permission to continue meeting, the Police Commission has not met since Feb. 19.
“While we support the ability of our fellow commissions to meet, one has to ask: Is approval of a West Elm Formula Retail Store (Planning Commission Agenda, May 7, 2020), more important than the health and safety of our residents and visitors?” the commissioners wrote in a letter to Breed. “We think the answer is clearly, no.”
The commissioners pointed to a number of events that have occurred in the time since the oversight body last met, including a report being released on severe understaffing in the department, two police shootings and an officer being arrested on suspicion of rape. The commission is in charge of setting policy and imposing discipline.
Most recently, a number of officers donned the “Thin Blue Line” masks while in uniform last Friday.
The masks, given out by the San Francisco Police Officers Association to protect against coronavirus, raised concerns because the flag has recently been used as a symbol for Blue Lives Matter, while others said the flag commemorated officers who died in the line of duty.
Hamasaki previously said the masks violated police policy, which prohibits officers from engaging in political activity while on-duty.
He and DeJesus appear to have penned the letter to Breed on Monday with the understanding that the Mayor’s Office had denied a request for the Police Commission to meet during the crisis.
But Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for Breed, said that the commission has never made a formal request to meet.
“Commissions have met and we continue to approve commissions for essential business during this time,” Cretan said. “They just need to submit a letter.”
Acting Commission President Damali Taylor said the situation may be a misunderstanding.
In their letter to Breed, the commissioners said Taylor told Hamasaki that the Mayor’s Office had denied a request to meet April 15 until further notice due to technical issues.
“That didn’t come from me,” Taylor said. “He may well have misunderstood.”
Taylor said former President Bob Hirsch, whose term ended last month, removed an April 15 meeting from the calendar due to coronavirus concerns.
Since then, Taylor said the hold up has been technological issues.
And because other boards have had trouble meeting virtually, Taylor said “we thought we were going to take the time and get it right.”
“I was hoping that we could have a meeting by May 20,” Taylor said. “At this point we just don’t have the adequate capabilities to make sure that we have public comment and closed session.”
DeJesus and Hamasaki want the commission to meet a week earlier, on May 13.
But Taylor said she has been as eager as anyone to hold a meeting. She said Hamasaki has not responded to emails regarding technology issues.
“I’ve actually been spending a lot of time working on this for a lot of weeks,” Taylor said. “If Commissioner Hamasaki had even talked to me or even responded to the commission staff, he would have learned about what was going on.”
Hamasaki said he had in fact raised the issue with Taylor over the phone on Sunday and offered cellphone records as evidence.
Both District Attorney Chesa Boudin and Public Defender Manohar Raju joined the call for the commission to resume meeting.
“Police are working hard on the front lines during stressful and unprecedented times,” Boudin said in a statement. “It’s important that they have the benefit and guidance of the commission as they navigate the pandemic.”
Raju said the commission plays an important role in holding the San Francisco Police Department “publicly accountable and implementing much needed reforms.”
“This is all the more true in the wake of another police shooting and controversy surrounding masks that many community-members found offensive and tone-deaf,” Raju wrote in a letter to the mayor, Board of Supervisors and commission.
The public defender also cited a San Francisco Examiner report on an implicit bias trainer who came forward to the chief with concerns about extreme anti-black sentiment in the police force.
“Not long before the shelter-in-place order, the commission called for a probe into allegations by implicit bias trainer Dante King that SFPD has an ‘anti-black bias,’” Raju said. “The ‘blue lives matter’ masks suggests that probe has been on hold long enough.”
The Police Commission is currently down two members — Hirsch and former longtime Commissioner Tippy Mazzucco, whose terms ended April 30.
Both Hirsch and Mazzucco, as well as current commissioners Taylor and Dion-Jay Brookter, were nominated by the mayor.
The Board of Supervisors-appointed members, Hamasaki, DeJesus and Cindy Elias, currently have a majority.
Both are expected to appear before a Board of Supervisors committee at some point this month as the confirmation process moves forward.
This story has been updated to include additional comment.