(Examiner file photo )

Police Commission cleared to meet for first time in months

Face mask controversy highlighted absence of disciplinary panel

The disciplinary body in charge of holding police accountable has been cleared to meet virtually next week after going dark nearly three months ago.

The Mayor’s Office approved a request Monday to exempt the Police Commission from a city order barring all but essential panels from meeting during the coronavirus crisis, according to Jeff Cretan, a spokesperson for Mayor London Breed.

The decision, which will be finalized on Thursday, means that the commission can hold a meeting next Wednesday for the first time since Feb. 19 and will be allowed to meet going forward, Cretan said.

The news comes on the same day that Supervisor Dean Preston is expected to introduce a motion at the Board of Supervisors that would also exempt the Police Commission from the order.

Preston said he was driven to action by officers responding to a protest on May 1 wearing politically charged face masks.

The “Thin Blue Line” masks, distributed by the police union, were seen as a symbol of the Blue Lives Matter movement and a possible violation of police policy banning on-duty political activity.

For critics, the controversy highlighted the absence of the police disciplinary body.

“There are serious public safety issues and issues of oversight,” Preston told the San Francisco Examiner. “It makes no sense for our Police Commission to be barred from meeting at this time.”

Preston accused the police union of encouraging officers to commit “offensive acts” in violation of San Francisco Police Department policy and called on the Police Commission to respond.

The San Francisco Police Officers Association has defended the “Thin Blue Line” as a symbol commemorating fallen officers and representing “law enforcement’s separation of order and chaos.”

The union even began selling the masks online last week.

Exactly why the commission has not been able to meet virtually during the crisis like other panels is unclear.

While Mayor London Breed ordered panels to stop meeting March 18, both the Mayor’s Office and the Board of Supervisors have the authority to exempt the Police Commission from the order.

Believing the Mayor’s Office had denied a request for the Police Commission to meet, commissioners Petra DeJesus and John Hamasaki wrote Breed a letter May 4 urging her to permit regular commission meetings.

But Cretan, the spokesperson for Breed, said at the time that no such request had been denied or even submitted then.

Damali Taylor, the acting Police Commission president, said the process had been held up by technical difficulties despite her best efforts to get the commission up and running virtually.

“I was hoping that we could have a meeting by May 20,” Taylor previously said. “At this point we just don’t have the adequate capabilities to make sure that we have public comment and closed session.”

On Tuesday, Taylor said a request had since been submitted.

“As far as I know, we haven’t yet received final approval,” Taylor said. “As soon as we do, we will post the agenda on the website.”

Cretan said the commission was verbally approved Monday and will receive an official written notice Thursday. The commission will not have to request an exemption to the order going forward.

Preston said he would like the commission to resume meeting as soon as possible, regardless of whether it is allowed to hold regular meetings through the Mayor’s Office or Board of Supervisors.

“Generally the goal is to get things done, and I don’t care whose name is on it,” Preston said.

After being introduced Tuesday, his motion could at the earliest be approved at committee later this week and by the full board next week.

The Police Commission would then be able to meet regularly with Board of Supervisors approval beginning May 27, if for some reason the mayoral exemption were not in place.

In a statement on Preston’s motion, Hamasaki said the commission had been “held hostage by petty politics and gamesmanship.”

“I am grateful to Supervisor Preston and the Board of Supervisors for taking the lead to restore oversight and accountability to the department,” Hamasaki said.

The commission currently has two vacant seats for mayoral appointees.

The seats are not expected to be filled until next month at the earliest.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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