For incoming chief, path forward on SFPD reforms an uphill battle

San Francisco’s new police chief is expected to fight more than crime on his watch — his biggest challenge might be wresting the department from its recent troubles.

When Mayor Ed Lee named Los Angeles Deputy Chief William Scott as The City’s 38th permanent chief on Dec. 20, it was clear the main task before the soon-to-be top cop will be putting into practice a series of federally recommended reforms for the scandal-ridden San Francisco Police Department.

While the collaborative reform process has been underway for some time, the bulk of the changes that must come to the department remain incomplete. It will be Scott’s job to fulfill Mayor Lee’s promise that all 271 recommendations released by the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Service in October are implemented.

But how Scott goes about implementing the recommendations and, at the same time, making the reforms stick remains to be seen.

One thing is certain, though: That task will not be made any easier by a recalcitrant San Francisco Police Officers Association leadership that continues to stand in the way of reforms. Just last week, the union slammed the mayor in a private message for allegedly failing to include the union in the chief search process.

Police critics, former federal investigators, former officers and others say Scott’s success will depend on numerous factors.

On the one hand, Scott must ensure the department completes it’s detailed work of implementing the reform package, which means making sure policy, training and oversight are all in place so the reforms will not simply be empty rhetoric.

He must also use what is learned from many of these changes — namely, improved data collection — to understand police work, stop bad behavior and promote good policing.

Most importantly, Scott must lead by example and shift the department’s culture away from the often-reactionary calls of the POA.

“The incoming chief has a great deal of information to absorb,” said Julie Traun, who has worked on police reform efforts for the San Francisco Bar Association. “I think he has a good road map laid out by the DOJ.”

San Francisco police Cpt. Michael Connolly works at the Professional Standards and Principled Policing Bureau, which is leading the reform effort. Connolly said that some of the first 44 priority recommendations are already in the process of being implemented.

For instance, an automated notification system will go live Jan. 1 so that everyone from media to community groups will be notified when serious incidents, such as police shootings or high-profile homicides, occur. Another reform already put into place is the new use-of-force policy, which was passed Dec. 21, but could be mired in court now that the POA is suing The City over the matter.

There are a number of other reforms, which the COPS office said the department should already have in place, that remain in limbo.

For instance, COPS told the department in May it should conduct a department-wide audit of text messages to see if the two cases of racist text messages have any wider implications. As of October, the department had yet to begin any such audit, the COPS review noted.

“That is still in progress,” Connolly said. “I’m not even sure if it’s begun.”

The majority of the reforms, which are broken down into a number of areas, will be put into action over the next several months through working groups. Those groups will focus on use of force, bias and procedural justice, supervision and accountability, community policing, and recruitment and hiring.

“There’s no working group set up as yet,” said Connolly, who added that the department is in the process of training about 25 project managers to lead the working groups from within each bureau. Those groups, led by officers, will include community members and will each address specific policy, training, oversight and transparency issues in their specific bureaus. From there, the work will be passed up the chain of command for final sign-off by Chief Scott and the Mayor’s Office.

The COPS office will periodically monitor the implementation process during its initial phase.

Traun said a key part of tracking the reforms will be centered on data.

“You can’t do anything without data,” Traun said. “You have to collect it and you have to collect it right.”

Traun noted that moving away from the woefully inadequate and often absent data collection of the department will not simply mean collecting data to collect data, but using what that information tells the department to alter how it polices.

“We’re going to collect it. We’re going to analyze it. We’re going to learn from it,” Traun said.

Traun also said very similar but distinct ways of collecting racial data illustrate the pitfalls of making sure the data collection process actually improves policing.

The state, for instance, asks officers to request from people their race. The City’s new rules, however, ask for the officers to instead write down what they perceived someone’s race to be.

Traun said that is more useful in understanding how and why officers interact with some people, because the perception of an officer will often be more important in terms of how they treat someone. For instance, an officer may treat someone they think is Latino a certain way, even if that person is, say, Turkish.

Aaron Zisser, a former trial attorney for the DOJ Civil Rights Division in Washington, D.C., who’s been involved in federal reviews and participated in reform quality control, said the process isn’t simply about making new policy and training manuals. He said an ongoing change of mindset that is always assessing and tweaking things is essential to ensuring the system in place is doing what it’s meant to do.

“I don’t think there’s anything intuitive about those systems. It is complicated and it’s not going to be perfect,” said Zisser, noting that large organizations can’t be run effectively by intuition or a leader’s gut.

“Quality assurance is a huge part of any functional system,” he added. “It’s a feedback loop.”

But Zisser cautioned that working groups and new policies — and even good data — will come to naught if the leadership isn’t committed to the changes.

“The leadership has to find a way to say, ‘Look, this is not a witch hunt for bad cops,’” Zisser said. “We don’t want our officers to get into trouble because they don’t have the proper training.”

Anand Subramanian, who headed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement, said that the COPS review and the panel’s findings overlapped in many regards. But one subject where it did not overlap relates to leadership as a force for cultural change in the department.

“The SFPD chief has to be an outspoken leader for a path forward,” Subramanian said, adding that any chief must counter the negative impact of the POA which “in many ways has co-opted department leadership.”

For John Crew, a former ACLU lawyer and vocal Police Department watchdog, culture is the key to making the reform package stick.

“The laundry list created by the DA’s Blue Ribbon Panel report and the COPS report are very important. But they are a start, not the end,” Crew said. “And perhaps the important thing for Chief Scott and, more importantly, the people of San Francisco and our elected and appointed leaders to recognize, is that the overarching goal over a period of time is to change the culture at the SFPD.”

Former Chief Anthony Ribera, who now works at University of San Francisco, said creating strong leadership for whatever reason must begin with Chief Scott spending as much time as he can at the 10 station houses.

But Ribera cautioned that this face-to-face approach should not be done in order to gain popularity, but to re-enforce the idea that he has specific expectations officers can live by and stands behind the decision he makes, no matter how unpopular.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the title for Aaron Zisser.


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