The San Francisco Police Department was slammed Wednesday in a federal review, cementing negative perceptions about a police force whose reputation has been damaged in recent years by the conviction of officers for constitutional violations, the discovery of racist text messages sent by officers and a series of fatal shootings that eventually unseated a popular chief in May.
The assessment by the Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services of the department found troubles with transparency, accountability, bias, data collection, internal oversight and hiring, as well as obstacles from the police union to implement reforms.
In all, the initial assessment offered 94 findings and more than 200 recommendations, which are part of the collaborative review request made in January by Mayor Ed Lee and former Chief Greg Suhr when he headed the department.
“There are significant deficiencies [in the San Francisco Police Department],” said COPS director Ronald Davis at a Wednesday news conference, adding that, “top to bottom, we found room for improvement.”
Local officials, who played down the report’s worst findings while admitting its hard truths, said they plan to accept and implement the recommendations.
“We’ve thrown open our doors. We’ve invited transparency. We’ve invited accountability,” said Mayor Lee, who called the assessment “painfully accurate.”
However painful its findings, Lee promised to put the recommendations into action so there is fair and just policing on the streets of San Francisco.
“[The] San Francisco Police Department will accept and implement every single recommendation,” he said.
Lee, who called for the review after the killing by police of Mario Woods Dec. 2, 2015, will soon choose a new police chief who will be tasked with implementing the COPS review.
Whoever that is, said Davis, must use the report as a “guiding document” for the department.
Acting Chief Toney Chaplin, who is among the semifinalists in the chief search, acknowledged that accepting the report’s findings will be “painful upfront,” but pointed out the department’s many reforms in recent months show it is willing to change.
Some of those changes include the rollout of body cameras and a new use-of-force policy, as well as implicit bias training and sanctity of life practices, such as time and distance.
The review found that the majority of fatal use-of-force incidents involved people of color. It also found that the department does not adequately investigate, track or keep data on uses of force in general.
It found that people of color are more often stopped and searched compared to their proportion of the population, and that there are indications of implicit and institutional bias against minorities.
According to the report, the department failed to adequately audit department emails, cellphones and other electronic communications following revelations that a group of officers sent racist and bigoted text messages.
The report found that the department’s failure to address incidents of bias head-on has created a perception of biased policing, which was mirrored by the fact that allegations of biased policing have not been sustained in more than three years.
The report also found a lack of accountability when it came to disciplinary practices and that internal investigations are often inadequate.
Police Commission President Suzy Loftus said she welcomed the honesty of the report, and now the commission and the department have a roadmap toward reform.
“I wanted an unflinching, unsparing review — and I’m glad we got it,” Loftus said in a statement. “The first step is to see this report as the blueprint for reform. Sustainable progress and reform is best achieved through collaboration. The Police Commission will continue to work with community members and members of the department as we implement this blueprint for reform together.”
But the San Francisco Police Officers Association said in a statement that the report validated the union’s vision of the department.
“We want to make sure that the public understands that the DOJ’s description contradicts the allegations coming from our harshest critics, who have unfairly painted San Francisco’s finest as Jim Crow-era police officers from the Deep South,” said POA President Martin Halloran.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi credited the DOJ for a comprehensive review, but wondered whether the recommendations will actually be implemented.
“It’s a damning report. It calls for systemic reform on every level. But the question is, who will make sure the reforms are put into place?” said Adachi. “I think it’s highly unlikely [the] SFPD can reform itself.”
Meanwhile, one critic of the department questioned whether any of the reforms will be possible without confronting the POA.
“If they are committed to engaging in these changes, it’s going to require saying no to the POA,” said former ACLU lawyer John Crew, who pointed to the union’s opposition to some of the department’s new use-of-force policies. “It’s not about individual mayors and it’s not about best intentions. It’s about a political unwillingness to take on the POA.”
The final COPS report will be released next week, and its implementation will be monitored by the DOJ.
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