While the U.S. Department of Justice said on Monday it will review the practices of the San Francisco Police Department, the assessment might be far less than the investigation many have asked for in the wake of the Mario Woods shooting.
The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services review is not a civil rights investigation launched into the Police Department like in Ferguson, Mo., or Chicago — but a voluntary review of the policies, procedures and training of police in The City, which Police Chief Greg Suhr and Mayor Ed Lee requested.
According to former federal DOJ trial attorney Aaron Zisser, the federal COPS review is a step in the right direction for police reform, but one that “does not have the teeth” of an investigation by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.
It’s also a strong indication there will not be a civil rights investigation, Zisser said.
Since Woods was shot and killed by police in the Bayview in December, Mayor Lee, city supervisors and protesters have called for an independent federal investigation into the 26 year old’s death.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California took the call one step further last month, asking for a pattern and practices review of San Francisco police in response to the Woods killing, as well as the racist and homophobic text messages numerous officers were caught sending last year.
The COPS review, which is a collaborative process between the DOJ and SFPD, is neither of those investigations.
Brian Stretch, acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, said at the press conference a Civil Rights Division investigation would be “the next step up” from the collaborative COPS review.
The community-policing review is expected to last from eight to 10 months, with the first of several town hall meetings scheduled to be hosted by the DOJ at an undetermined location in San Francisco on Feb. 24, Chief Noble Wray with the COPS office said at a press conference.
While considering a pattern and practice investigation, the COPS office determined that “collaborative reform process was the best course of action for the San Francisco Police Department,” according to Wray.
The review process seeks to provide transparency and accountability in the department and includes collecting thousands of police documents, interviewing officers, reviewing previous use-of-force cases and determining whether bias exists in the department.
The process involves meeting with organizations like the Police Officers Association and Officers for Justice — two police groups who are in opposition over the Woods issue — as well as the District Attorney’s Office.
Last year, the DA launched the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability and Fairness in Law Enforcement to examine practices in the SFPD. While DA George Gascon said in a letter last week the panel has been stonewalled by police, Suhr denied that notion Monday and said his department would fork over any public documents to the panel.
Suhr said the COPS office will have full access to his officers.
The office expects to release a public report on its findings in six months and another in a year, before making final recommendations to the department when the review is over. The recommendations themselves amount to suggestions that are not enforceable.
COPS Director Ronald Davis said his office is “not an enforcement arm of the Department of Justice.”
“Our process is voluntary so they’re not enforced in a court of law,” Davis said. “They are absolutely enforceable in the court of public opinion, which can be just as powerful as a court of law.”
But for Zisser, the review is much less thorough and lasting compared to a civil rights inquiry, which is not voluntary and can require jurisdictions to enact reforms under court orders.
Supervisor London Breed, who has asked for a civil rights division investigation, is glad something is being done, but has reservations about the COPS review.
“What I’m asking for is specifically an independent investigation into the shooting of Mario Woods,” Breed said. The Board of Supervisors also wants the Civil Rights Division to look into the department’s practices, she added.
“This doesn’t hurt but, we’ll see what happens,” she said about the COPS review. “But there’s a lot of community distrust with the department, and we have to figure out a way to rebuild that trust, and I don’t know what this is gonna do to help with that.”