Holy hell. I thought the Police Officer’s Association was off its rocker before — but now it’s unleashed full war against police reform.
By hiring public relations crisis manager Nathan Ballard, the POA has upped the ante in its campaign against common sense.
Its new target is District Attorney George Gascon, who the police union accused of making racist remarks at some long-ago party and for — somehow — personally increasing property crime.
It’s a strategy to metaphorically shoot the messenger, but the real controversy is over who the police literally shoot.
As people across San Francisco mourn the deaths of Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, and Amilcar Lopez at the hands of the San Francisco Police Department, real reform efforts are emerging from talks between Mayor Ed Lee, Chief Greg Suhr and the police commission.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, also part of those talks, tells me stronger reforms — perhaps even of the criminal justice system itself — may come from Gascon’s recently formed Blue Ribbon Panel on police.
The police union responded by launching attack ads against Gascon on the radio and planting news stories to tar him.
“The POA is really impeding the progress that could be made if we worked together,” Adachi told me. He said the SFPD and other stakeholders “weren’t that far apart” on reform.
The City needs the POA on board because reform is only half the battle: Rank-and-file police need to actually accept and enact these new policies.
“We need buy-in from the officers,” Mayor Lee told me earlier this month. He called the POA “invaluable,” but when asked if they’re budging on reform, said, “It’s not like we haven’t been making every attempt to communicate.”
Adachi was more frank and said both sides are “basically throwing Molotov cocktails at each other.”
Ballard defended the union, saying, “Basically, the DA declared war on the police department” and now “the police union is fighting back.”
And thanks to Ballard, they’re fighting back smarter (mostly).
The POA recently alleged Gascon made racist remarks, which POA head Marty Halloran and consultant Gary Delagnes made in a “sworn declaration.”
This cloak of officiousness is more than just window dressing. Legally, if detractors wanted to sue Halloran or Delagnes for defamation, they couldn’t, experts tell me. The statements are crafted so only a DA — in this case, Gascon — could say they committed perjury.
Gascon can’t act because the statements are about him, a conflict of interest. So legally, no one can challenge the statements. Ballard savvily protected the union’s usual thrashing.
Ballard’s work with the POA may also politically complicate reform efforts because of his close ties with the mayor, public relations expert Sam Singer told me.
“The fact that one of the mayor’s close political public relations associates is working at odds with reforms the mayor’s office is attempting to implement is not helpful to anyone’s cause,” Singer said.
Since leaving Mayor Gavin Newsom’s administration in 2009, Ballard has helped many clients near and dear to the heart of sitting mayors.
He’s representing the Golden State Warriors (often opposite Mr. Singer), whose new stadium is known as Lee’s “legacy” project. Ballard also represented the Super Bowl 50 Committee, another friend to Lee.
When mayoral allies cry for help, Ballard swoops in like our mustachioed mayor’s personal superhero.
“I have old and deep relationships in San Francisco,” Ballard said. “I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call my friends to discuss policy or politics. Generally, I’m an ally of Mayor Lee. He’s a friend, and I respect him.”
Despite that, he said, “I’m my own man, and I make my own decisions.”
Supervisor John Avalos, a staunch supporter of police reform, recast that relationship more bluntly. “The mayor, the police chief and POA are simply circling the wagons using mercenaries like Ballard,” Avalos said.
Even more moderate supervisors are fed up with the lack of compromise. Supervisor London Breed told me, “We have to figure out not only how the public goes home safe, but how their officers go safe, too.”
But the POA won’t negotiate. “Someone needs to be the grown up in the room. I’m disappointed,” Breed said.
Indeed, the union is isolating itself.
It’s fighting the board. It’s fighting the DA. It’s fighting the public defender. And it’s fighting the Blue Ribbon Panel.
Pretty soon, there will be few in San Francisco left to fight.
On Guard prints the news and raises hell each Tuesday. Email him at email@example.com.