A San Francisco native and longtime immigration attorney cleared his first hurdle Monday toward becoming the newest member of the oversight board charged with setting police policy and holding officers accountable.
Police Commission hopeful Jim Byrne received unanimous support from the Rules Committee on Monday after expressing his commitment to police reform and exploring alternatives to policing.
Byrne is the son of Irish immigrants who was raised in the Excelsior and has mostly represented clients in immigration matters since establishing a law practice in San Francisco in 1983. He was nominated by Mayor London Breed last month for a term ending April 30, 2024.
Byrne told Supervisors Aaron Peskin, Connie Chan and Rafael Mandelman at the Rules Committee that he has studied the benefits of police reform in Northern Ireland while defending clients in immigration court and hoped to be part of the changes in San Francisco.
While traveling by train in Northern Ireland as a young man, Byrne said he experienced police bias and abuse firsthand when he was forcibly removed and detained by police at gunpoint “purely because they suspected I was an Irish Catholic.”
“I was terrified,” Byrne said. “That feeling of helplessness has never left me.”
If confirmed, Byrne said he wanted to ride along with police and the newly formed Street Crisis Response Teams of behavioral health workers and paramedics that respond to non-violent mental health calls for service instead of police.
“I want to go out into the field and get my hands dirty,” Byrne said.
While he seemed to support the teams, Byrne echoed a position Police Chief Bill Scott has taken and said he wanted to ensure the program was capable of running smoothly before fully diverting certain calls for service from police to the unarmed workers.
“The last thing that we want is an inadequate response,” Byrne said.
Byrne said he also understood the need for more officers in some situations in light of the heightened attention to violence against Asian Americans in San Francisco and other cities around the nation.
“At least in the Asian community, particularly in the Chinese community, it absolutely calls for an increased police presence in order to attempt to deter the despicable behavior that’s going on,” Byrne said.
When asked by Peskin, Byrne said he would not support arming police with stun guns — a hot-button issue that has long dogged the Police Commission and San Francisco Police Department — if confirmed.
“The key issue is that Tasers have been lethal,” Byrne said. “It’s crazy to believe that Tasers don’t kill people. Tasers do kill people, maybe not as much as bullets, but they are still a lethal force.”
Mandelman said he hoped Byrne would not just focus on reform but also on ensuring the SFPD was “effective as well as compassionate” if confirmed to the commission. Mandelman has been concerned about the rise in burglaries and the perception that San Francisco is soft on crime — a belief that he said has at times been spread by police officers.
While “the commitment to reform is necessary, in my view it is not sufficient for a police commissioner in San Francisco at this moment,” Mandelman said.
Byrne would fill the last empty seat on the seven-member commission after Chinatown leader and Breed-nominee Larry Yee joined the oversight board last month.
The seat was previously held by former Commissioner Thomas Mazzucco and must be filled by a retired judge or attorney with trial experience under city rules.
Byrne is due to appear at the full Board of Supervisors for a final vote on his appointment next Tuesday.