On Guard: Supervisors should have honest dialogue about SFPD reform

A debate over a Board of Supervisors policy statement to support the Black Lives Matter movement is the most politically charged debate this winter. The police are fighting back against their critics.

It doesn't have to be this way. We should be able to call for new police policies while respecting the work our officers do. So far, that hasn't been the dialogue.

Supervisor John Avalos' proposed policy statement, introduced at last week's Board of Supervisors meeting, states support for the Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. It also notes concerns of the community over the death of Alex Nieto, 28, who was shot and killed by SFPD on Bernal Hill.

He was armed only with a taser, which police say they mistook for a gun.

The incident led to calls for reform of the SFPD's race relations. But now the SFPD's union, the Police Officer's Association, is calling for any mention of the SFPD to be removed from Avalos' policy statement.

“Supervisor Avalos was attempting to paint members of the SFPD with a broad brush as trigger-happy,” Martin Halloran, POA president, said at the Board of Supervisors last week. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Nieto's family and community members say that race and policing are far from perfect in the City by the Bay. In order to support the Black Lives Matter movement honestly, they say, we must acknowledge our own struggles.

“This is a non-binding resolution intended to provide a flag of support to what has become the civil rights movement of our time,” Edwin Lindo, vice president of the Latino Democratic Club told me. To not include Alex Nieto in the resolution, he said, “would be a faceless, toothless endeavor.”

And he's right: San Francisco has to look in the mirror before it can critique Staten Island, or Ferguson. Many say we have the most progressive police force in the nation. By many yardsticks, this may be true.

Chief Greg Suhr has largely gutted efforts to criminalize drugs, for instance.

But, as community members point out, people of color like Alex Nieto are still wrongly killed by police. And 56 percent of our jails hold black inmates, in a city with a 6 percent African American population. Recent news reports highlight another frightening statistic: Over half of those killed by the SFPD in officer-involved-shootings since 2005 were mentally ill, according to a September report by KQED.

“The police officers association would like there to be only one frame: things are good here,” Avalos told the Examiner. “But that's not the case.”

It is true that the police often clean up the messes society produces, from meeting the needs of the mentally ill, to tackling gang-torn impoverished neighborhoods.

But there are police policies that beg for improvement. The Office of Citizens Complaints, advocates point out, is not transparent about which officers are disciplined, pulling a cloak over which officers are bad actors. How can the public verify the OCC is doing its job, they ask, if citizens can't check the incidents it oversees?

No reforms and no discussion can happen when the police avoid critique. And the POA is skilled at chilling politicians from even discussing reform.

Jim Stearns, a noted political consultant, put it this way: “[The POA] will put their money where their mouth is, they'll do phone banks, mailers, attack pieces. They do not pull their punches in their public statements.”

So far, Supervisors Malia Cohen and London Breed, two African American supervisors, have both called for the SFPD to be removed from Avalos' resolution. Breed understands police violence, as her cousin was killed by the SFPD in 2006. Still, she argues she needs the political support of police to help battle gang violence in her district.

“People feel their lives in jeopardy as they walk out the door,” she said. “I don't want to do anything that could be perceived as against the police at a time when I need them the most.”

And the discussion may be further chilled after NYPD officers Wenjian Liu, 32, and Rafael Ramos, 40, were shot and killed Saturday as they sat in their squad car by the mentally disturbed Ismaayil Brimsley, 28, who later took his own life.

They were targeted because they were police. The assassinations have officers nationwide, and in San Francisco, understandably afraid for their lives. It also allows them to shut down legitimate debate.

“Right now we're grieving, as a profession and as a country, for two officers who were only guilty of wearing a uniform,” SFPD Chief Greg Suhr said when asked about Avalos' legislation, yesterday. “I'm not going to get into all the other stuff.”

But when will be the right time to discuss the SFPD's role in black and brown lives in San Francisco? More than 5,000 people assembled at the Ferry Building almost two weeks ago to call for justice in the wake of deaths at the hands of law enforcement.

The critique is a valid one: But the police should not be our enemies, and we should not be the enemies of the police.

We need to talk. But we have to be honest first. And if we can't acknowledge the death of Alex Nieto with Mike Brown and Eric Garner, then we're lying to ourselves.

On Guard covers issues concerning The City's political left. It prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at joe@sfexaminer.com.

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