Ken Williams, a police reform and use of force expert, speaks during a justice summit on the use of force at the San Francisco Public Library on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. (Ryan McNulty/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Former Massachusetts cop says SFPD needs to be accountable on reforms

As the San Francisco Police Department works to rewrite its use-of-force policies under a newly appointed interim chief, one former Massachusetts cop says for those policies to become a reality on the ground there must be accountability for officers who break the rules.

“The only way this gets fixed … is that the people who [do wrong] are punished,” Ken Williams, a former Brockton, Mass., police officer said at the San Francisco Public Defender’s annual justice summit Wednesday.

The Police Department’s use-of-force policy has not changed in more than 20 years, and the current unfinalized draft is meant to emphasize de-escalation techniques, such as time and distance, as a way to make the sanctity of life a central plank of how the department deals with use-of-force incidents.

As it stands, the policy leaves far too much discretion for each officer, according to Williams, and the killings of Luis Gongora (in April) and Mario Woods (in December 2015) by police show that to be the case. Under the current policy, officers are allowed to use lethal force when they feel their lives or the lives of civilians are threatened. Those definitions must be crystal clear.

But no matter what the new policies are, Williams says accountability is a must — a claim others have repeated.

Still, the Police Officers Association has opposed the proposed policies, which could impact their implementation.

Williams, who was a whistleblower in an incident that ended his law enforcement career in Massachusetts, said accountability must also be about embracing instead of punishing whistleblowers.

The department’s record up to now is mixed on both counts.

Two recent cases involving whistleblowers indicate that such officers are run out of the department, rather than embraced.

As for the level and frequency of punishment, a recent report indicated little punishment is meted out to officers who break the rules.

The District Attorney-launched Blue Ribbon Panel on police bias found in its preliminary report “there is no transparency in the disciplinary process.” What’s more, the report found the disciplinary guidelines are outdated and there is little tracking of the outcome of discipline.

And investigations into police misconduct allegations by the department’s watchdog, the Office of Citizen Complaints, “rarely result in disciplinary consequences, and when they do, the discipline imposed is almost always mild.”

Still, Police Commission President Suzy Loftus has said the commission and department have been busily punishing misbehaving cops in recent years. And under exChief Greg Suhr, the department moved to fire a group of officers who sent racist text messages, as well as other disciplinary actions against bad officers.

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