Yulanda Williams’ straight, black hair fell over her shoulders and draped a Black Lives Matter pin as she fumbled with her cellphone inside the Officers for Justice headquarters.
The Potrero Hill-raised 59-year-old police sergeant has been wearing a blue uniform for three decades. But she never thought she would become a cop.
During her early 30s, she became involved with activism in the Bayview, trying to stop drug dealers from terrorizing her neighborhood.
Eventually some police officers she’d befriended said she should do something rather than complain about crime. “I never had any idea that I would have gotten in the department,” she said.
Six months after she passed the entry exams, “I was suited and in the academy,” she said.
Ever since, Williams has spent her working days and nights fighting crime in San Francisco.
Now Williams has returned to her roots as an activist as head of The City’s first explicit minority-based police association. Founded in 1968 by a handful of black and minority officers fed up with unfair treatment in an overwhelmingly white department, Officers for Justice has played an oversized role over the past three decades, acting as a prod for equitable treatment within the department.
“They are the voice of reason and truth,” former Police Commissioner Angela Chan said. “They share their experiences as black members of the community.”
Officers for Justice has pushed from inside and outside the department to increase the number of minorities and women in the force, and give those already there a fair shake. But in recent years, the group’s leadership lost its resolve as the department’s reforms around bias backslid.
Now Williams and others want to rekindle the group’s activism.
Their challenge is a twofold struggle for survival and relevance: Keep the pressure on the department and push for more minority recruitment.
So far, Williams has at least brought the group back on the radar and buttressed its numbers — currently there are about 150 members. Williams has spoken before the Police Commission about racial bias in the force, along with the need to increase recruitment of young minorities.
From behind the scenes, she has been trying to push Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr to increase training on bias and improve policing in minority communities.
Board of Supervisors President London Breed said the group has been crucial over the years.
“I would say there’s a renewed activism,” she said.
Williams’ energies come at a time of renewed public attention on the treatment of minorities by police. Locally, a scandal over a group of officers who allegedly sent bigoted texts to one another from 2010 to 2011 has helped thrust the group back into the fore. Williams was even mentioned in texts, a distinction she sees as an affront to her and Officers for Justice.
QUEST FOR FAIRNESS, EQUALITY
The storefront headquarters of Officers for Justice is a humble affair. The organization’s name and symbol — a perfectly balanced scale — are stenciled in black and yellow on a plate-glass window, framing a handful of wooden African idols.
Other than a print on the wall of Harriet Tubman leading escaped slaves north, there is little in its Bayview headquarters that speaks to the impacts the small organization has had in its more than four decade history.
Some say Officers for Justice has not only helped shape The City’s police, but also acted as a model for other departments.
“We’re the conscience of the Police Department,” said Arlene Drummer, an Officers for Justice member who retired in 2001.
Officers for Justice was formed in 1968 by a handful of mostly black officers who, several years later, sued the department for its unfair treatment of black and minority officers, and won. The result: decadeslong federal oversight of the department to rectify its biased hiring and advancement policies.
Art Tapia, a longtime member of Officers for Justice who retired in the late 1990s, remembers when the founders of the organization sent a letter to the department in 1968 outlining their grievances. The letter coincided with ongoing racial tensions at San Francisco State University, and Tapia said it “hit like a bombshell.”
Many in the rank-and-file saw the timing as a cut against the department, Tapia said.
But others say the group was taking a stand for all women and minorities in the department.
“We had it really bad,” Drummer said. Still, she pointed out that her time in the department was rewarding. She wouldn’t have made it her career if the department was full of racists.
Strength and height tests were among the unfair bars set for entry that kept minorities and women from either entering the force or advancing through its ranks, said John Affeldt, managing attorney at Public Advocates, the law firm that filed a discrimination suit in 1973.
“The suit was critical and very important to get the department to pay attention and empower the Officers for Justice and the other officers of color and women,” Affeldt said.
Legal victory came in 1978 and federal oversight followed. A new, and fairer, testing regimen began, and height and strength tests were abolished.
“I saw all kinds of officers working together,” Tapia said of the first impacts of oversight. “Even the hard heads suddenly came around.”
But the department’s old ways died hard. Harry Soulette, who joined the force in 1982 and retired in 2013, was a beneficiary of the fairer system put into place by the feds. Still, it wasn’t always easy for a person of color.
Soulette said some officers in the department called the newcomers “tokens” who were part of the “rainbow coalition.” During his background check, when Soulette’s name was called, the inspector on duty didn’t believe he was a recruit. The man made him show his identification.
Even after he’d been in the force for some years, he felt the tension.
Stationed in the Mission, Soulette, whose father is Puerto Rican, was often asked to translate and the department had no language certification that would result in extra pay for such work. Once at the scene, the officers would hand him the case. It became so common he stopped in protest.
“For a year, I said, ‘I’m not gonna translate anymore,’” he said.
His protest backfired. When he called for backup hardly anyone would come.
“All you heard was radio silence,” he recalled. “None of those vets would back me up because I wouldn’t translate for them.”
While this kind of overt bias lessened as time passed, Soulette said, all bias didn’t disappear. If you weren’t Irish or Italian or didn’t go to the right school you remained on the outside.
“It’s a living part of the culture,” he said. “You don’t need to be an expert to see it.”
END OF OVERSIGHT By 1998, then-Mayor Willie Brown called the end of most federal oversight a victory. By all accounts, it appeared that was the case. The first Asian chief, Fred Lau, headed the department at the time and, soon after, the department’s first black chief, Earl Sanders, was appointed. Then came its first woman chief, Heather Fong.
At the time, the department was 37 percent minority and 16 percent female. Twenty years before, the ranks were 14 percent minority and 4 percent female.
But not everyone celebrated the end of federal oversight. “Key benefits of the suit, which went away, was to have a federal monitor be watching over these stats, these issues,” said Affeldt.
On the flip side, some were very critical of the nearly 20-year federal oversight.
“The City has a long-standing custom and practice in discriminating against white officers,” stated Patrick Manshardt, who represented several white officers in a 2011 civil suit against The City. The complaint said the department continued to give hiring and promotional preference to minority officers.
Williams says the story was exactly the opposite of the lawsuit’s contention. By 2003, the year the department’s first black police chief, Sanders, was appointed. “We were witnessing a serious change. The push for diversity had weakened,” said Williams.
While the department is now 50 percent minority — 8.85 percent black — and 15 percent female, Williams says the leadership remains predominantly white.
Still, others inside the department contend it has not fallen back to old ways.
“For years, the Department has been engaging the community through day to day interactions. We are partnering, problem solving, communicating, training, and interacting with people and our youth which fosters a mutual respect,” Officer Carlos Manfredi, a department spokesman, wrote in an email.
Police Academy recruits, Manfredi added, must volunteer in community projects to learn about the different communities in San Francisco and the issues affecting them.
“All recruits receive training on biased policing and active members return to the Police Academy regularly for ‘in service training’ where they receive updates in training, including a biased policing course,” Manfredi wrote. Additionally, the department trains officers in gender identity.
LOSING ITS ROOTS Either way, some current Officers for Justice members say for the past decade the organization has lost its roots.
“Some people just felt like the organization had turned to a social club,” Williams said.
Marion Jackson, one of the founding members of the organization who retired from the force in 2003, agrees with Williams about the organization being flabby of late.
“A handful of people used this as their steppingstones for advancement,” Soulette said.
A former Officers for Justice president, Inspector John Monroe — the Police Commission’s clerk — denies charges the organization had become a lackluster social club used as a tool by its leadership.
Under his leadership, the organization worked more behind the scenes.
“I think I had a closer relationship with the members of the administration,” he said.
Instead of publicly criticizing the department, he would pick up the phone.
“Sometimes we can just sit down and have a chit-chat about issues and we don’t have to argue, everything doesn’t have to be a fight,” he said.
Williams, Monroe said, just does things different than he did.
“She is more in tune with the community, which I think is a good thing,” Monroe said. “I do think that’s good. I just don’t know if the activist part helps her.”
“Not everybody gets promoted and some people are gonna be unhappy about that,” he said about the critique made by some that Officers for Justice was used as a tool for advancement.
While Williams didn’t directly criticize Monroe, she did say that she sees lots of minority officers in the department who don’t step up and make change.
Williams’ activist roll is exactly what is needed, others argue.
“She came in and turned everything upside down,” said Soulette, who started working for the organization several years ago.
Williams says the leadership had lost its vision and the organization its purpose. That purpose, she says, is to keep the department honest and fair and to make sure that the members of her organization are treated like everyone else. To Williams, that means she has to be a prod, a spur in the boot of the department.
Since her leadership, the organization has started to get back to its roots. After the end of the consent decree in the late ’90s many thought they had achieved their goals and could step back.
“I want to be known as the activist,” she said, especially in light of the recent text message scandal, which she says is not a case of bad apples. The department needs real change, she said, and thus far the brass has not brought her organization under the tent to help create solution.
Until that happens, Williams will probably be pushing for change.