Police union still seen as a hurdle to reforms as mayor and chief push ahead

As the mayor and police chief continue to reform police use of force rules, a major roadblock remains in changing overall policing in San Francisco: the politically powerful, but increasingly scorned, Police Officers Association.

The union’s entrenched position — that police in San Francisco aren’t subject to systemic racism other departments have been accused of — has seemingly contradicted recent events. First came revelations in 2015 that a group of officers sent racist and bigoted text messages. That scandal was followed by the controversial killing of Mario Woods, a black man, by police.

On Monday, Mayor Ed Lee stood beside Chief Greg Suhr and reviewed the package of reforms the department has put together since the Dec. 2 killing of Woods. The reforms are centered on de-escalation strategies meant to reduce deaths at the hands of police like that of Woods.

But absent from that event, as well as the Blue Ribbon Panel on bias and misconduct, where Suhr testified later that day, were leaders with the police union.

The union, which represents roughly 2,200 cops, instead released a statement saying it had been excluded from talks regarding the new policing policies.

“The SFPOA takes pride in partnering with the Mayor and the Police Chief to work together on sensible reforms that will make our streets safer. Despite our willingness to be a part of a positive conversation about these issues, the Police Department has failed to meet with us to discuss the new policies. This failure to ‘meet and confer’ violates both state law and our [memorandum of understanding],” POA President Martin Halloran said in a statement.

Halloran continued, “These are the biggest changes proposed to police policy in over 35 years and – although some of the policies may be good ones – some of the policies may expose our members to harm. We are not going to let that happen.”

Halloran said he expects the mayor and police chief to sit down with the union and review the policy changes to ensure they fall within the working conditions agreed to by both parties.

The POA’s absence Monday from the panel on bias and police misconduct –created by District George Gascon in 2015 after news of the racist text messages that were sent by 14 officers emerged — was noted by panel officials.

A panel lawyer said Halloran was invited to speak at the panel, but the union and panel are still negotiating the time and terms of his testimony.

Still, one of the trio of judges heading up the panel, LaDoris Cordell, said the POA’s request that anyone coming to speak to the panel should talk to the union first has had a “chilling effect.”

Gascon, also a former police chief, echoed concerns that the union has been a roadblock when he told the panel the union has been a detriment to reform and is too close to the department leadership tasked with heading up those reforms.

Gascon said there is an “unusual closeness between [the] union and some of the members of the command staff.”

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