In early December, as demonstrations against police brutality blocked freeways in the East Bay and traffic on Market Street in The City, a controversial resolution backing the message of protesters made its way through City Hall, an institution never at a loss for causes to support.
The resolution would have no effect on city governance — such actions are essentially just statements on a subject — yet it immediately raised the hackles of one of The City's most vocal unions: the Police Officers Association.
Calling it an incitement to violence, the union came out swinging against the resolution created by Supervisor John Avalos. The resolution included language pointing out that police — including those in the Police Department — have problems dealing with communities of color, but it also praised the SFPD for its strides in community policing. More broadly, the resolution supported protests locally and nationwide opposing police brutality that were sparked last year by the lack of grand jury indicts against the Missouri and New York officers responsible for killing two unarmed black men.
The resolution, originally introduced in late November, came before the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 12 with changes that included the mention of the Police Department and race issues in San Francisco. It was defeated 7-4. A watered-down version, with all mention of San Francisco's finest edited out, was eventually sent to committee.
At the time, the union's vocal and public opposition appeared to have had a large role in essentially killing the resolution as it was written.
The San Francisco Examiner obtained emails between the police union and supervisors that reveal the strident, behind-the-scenes tactics used by the POA, which represents 2,750 officers.
The emails were mostly sent by Gary Delagnes, a former union president who is now a consultant for the POA. They threatened to withdraw future support for Supervisor Malia Cohen, who backed the original resolution, and a handful of other supervisors if any of them backed the resolution.
“I am sure all of you understand that working together in the future with anyone who signs on to this legislation would be impossible,” Delagnes wrote in a Dec. 9 email to supervisors Mark Farrell, Katy Tang, Scott Wiener, London Breed and Cohen. Breed and Cohen are black.
The emails, which even contained apologies from the union's high- profile lobbyist, show the kind of political muscle the POA can throw around over a simple and toothless resolution. And the episode, several supervisors say, could foreshadow tactics the union might employ in fights this year over such things as police staffing and redrawing of district station lines.
Such insinuations are denied by the union, which argues that the emails were merely concerning this one issue and the timing of the resolution drove passions to a boiling point.
The emails were obtained in a public-records request. The one sent to Cohen and her colleagues went on say: “It is very rare that we ask for anything from our elected officials but I cannot emphasize enough the devastating effect this would have on the men and women of the SFPD.”
Whether the warning had any effect on the supervisors' votes — those contacted by The Examiner said the POA had no influence on their decisions — in the end, all of the supervisors who received the email opted to oppose Avalos' resolution. That includes Cohen, who originally co-sponsored it.
For Avalos, the POA's strong-arm tactics were not surprising.
“They'll use them until they discover they won't really work to help them get what they want,” he said. “Without stronger organized pressure from people calling for greater police accountability here in San Francisco, they may just keep down the same path.”
That sentiment was shared by Supervisor David Campos, who said: “I think that sometimes those tactics are counterproductive and they don't actually help the members.”
Others who got the email think the tactics are not out of the ordinary in a city known for it's passionate politics.
“This is San Francisco politics. Politics in San Francisco are rough and tumble,” Wiener said. “That email is tame compared to some of the communication that I receive. I would expect the president of a union to go to the mat to protect his members and be very blunt about it.”
At first, the POA emailed multiple legislators, but then it focused on Cohen — and that's when the language became vitriolic and illustrated the union's mood at the time. It is unclear whether other supervisors received the ensuing emails.
“Malia. We have just read the proposed legislation in front of the board regarding the police,” Delagnes wrote to Cohen on Dec. 9 in an email copied to Martin Halloran, the POA's current president.
“My thought is that you must have lost your mind,” the email continued. “If you become involved in this legislation you can rest assured that any relation with the POA is over. We went above and beyond for you and this is how you repay us. You had better think long and hard before lending your name to this. I am astounded that you would involve yourself in this absolute bull shit.”
The union, which campaign spending documents show spent tens of thousands of dollars in the November election, endorsed Cohen for a second term on the board.
Cohen quickly replied to Delagnes' email, taking issue with his tone but still agreeing to hear the POA's concerns.
“I have to say, I find the tone of your email communication to me incredibly inappropriate and disrespectful especially because we have always been able to have a productive and respectful relationship even when we disagree,” Cohen replied.
She went on to defend much of the resolution and even pointed out how it praised efforts by police to improve relations with communities of color.
Cohen said the union's threat was empty and “the emails didn't sway me.”
Still, she did say in the emails that she was open to hearing changes to the resolution in a “manner that is productive, respectful and not insulting.”
Cohen's response elicited an apology, but one laced with condescension.
“For you to even consider signing on to the original resolution is incomprehensible to me after we have been very receptive to you and the needs of your community,” wrote Delagnes, who later told The Examiner that his tone was due to his heightened emotions about the national issue.
A BETTER APOLOGY
The exchange between Delagnes and Cohen did eventually come around to a sort of amity, even if they still disagree about fundamental issues around policing and race. It also required the help of others.
Three days after the Dec. 9 emails, and one day before the resolution was voted down, Cohen received an email from the POA's lobbyist, Alex Tourk, which included suggested edits to the resolution signed off on by Police Chief Greg Suhr. Tourk is a high-profile lobbyist who works for Mayor Ed Lee backer and angel investor Ron Conway and has been involved in city politics since Gavin Newsom was mayor.
“I apologize for your interaction with Gary this week,” Tourk wrote to Cohen, noting that Delagnes was caught off guard by her potential support for the resolution, which she had co-sponsored. “You have established a solid rapport with Gary and Marty [Halloran] that reaching out to them to get their opinion on an issue or at least give them a heads up would be most appropriated.”
Halloran, who has been the POA president since Delagnes retired in 2013, sent Cohen a personalized letter — Cohen was crossed out and replaced with “Malia” and he signed the bottom with a “thanks for all your help, Marty” — asking her to refrain from backing the resolution.
When the resolution was eventually sent to committee, Cohen made sure that the concerns of the POA and the Police Department were included.
In a subsequent email, showing that the POA appears to have gotten its opinions into the new resolution, to Cohen's aide Yoyo Chan, Tourk wrote that “we do not have red-lined changes, only the final document which was approved by the Chief [Suhr] and Marty.”
Avalos said he asked Suhr for his opinion on the resolution, but received no reply. Suhr did tell him that the resolution would not be good for morale since protesters were attacking police. Avalos said Suhr told him, “I'm not sure I can continue to keep them in line if they're angry by this resolution.”
Suhr and Halloran did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
While he said he now thinks he went too far, Delagnes was not repentant in pointing out that his union will, and has, made enemies with those who blatantly go against police. Delagnes has a history of very public fights when it comes to police and the Board of Supervisors, having gained a reputation for being outspoken in his nine years leading the POA.
In 2006, when Delganes was still president of the POA, T-shirts were made that attacked police union critic and then-Supervisor Chris Daly.
When Supervisor Eric Mar wrote a resolution in 2009 that backed the release of alleged cop killers the San Francisco 8, he too was marked as a union enemy, Delagnes said.
Delagnes retired from the POA in 2013, when Halloran took over. He remains a consultant, according to the union.
Perhaps the clearest picture of Delagnes came in a message that Paul Chignell, the union's legal defense administrator, wrote in 2013 when Delagnes retired.
“When he wants to accomplish something significant for the membership, he will fight and claw and maneuver around those who dissent or oppose him. That is who Gary Delagnes is,” Chignell wrote in the POA journal. “Over the years, I have heard or read many agenda-driven verbal or printed bombs lobbed at San Francisco police officers. Gary has always gone after such opportunists with a vengeance.”
Putting aside Delagnes' history, at least one supervisor who received the group email in early December also said such threats did not and will not impact her votes.
“I don't take kindly to threats,” said Breed, who last month became president of the Board of Supervisors. “And I don't do my job in fear.”
Still, she did not back the police-brutality resolution as amended by Avalos.
That, Breed said, was because she saw no reason to alienate the police when she has to deal with them daily and wants them to do their job by catching violent criminals in her district.
“I just didn't feel comfortable supporting a resolution that would potentially impact morale with the department,” said Breed.
Delagnes said he thinks Avalos was using race to try to push the two black supervisors, Cohen and Breed, into a compromising position.
“I think it was Avalos putting them in a bad situation,” Delagnes said. “Like they had to vote for it since they represent the African-American community.”
Cohen said she was caught off guard by the changes that Avalos added.
“The irony is that John Avalos was putting together a resolution without consulting, speaking with me and Breed,” Cohen said.
But Avalos said Cohen was well aware of what the resolution contained.
“Malia was supportive of it,” Avalos said. “I don't know why Malia changed from one position to the next.”
Avalos said Delagnes' charges about the resolution are baseless, but the union's bombastic and hyperbolic approach to the matter seemed to have been effective when it came to Cohen and Breed.
“I think that they were under marching orders to make changes to the resolution, gutting some language, any reference to local issues,” Avalos said.
THE RACE DEBATE
Around the time of the debate over the resolution, the police union said in an open letter that it wanted to work constructively with the community when it comes to race relations, but added that it would not stand for unwarranted attacks on the rank-and-file officers.
The POA emails also addressed the debate over race and policing in a much more candid way than what was given in public statements, and they showed the divergence in opinion between the pressured supervisors and the union.
“As much as people try to make the tragic events in Ferguson and New York about race that is simply not the truth yet the Board is preparing a resolution that is going to perpetuate the lies,” Delagnes wrote to Cohen. “Cops are being beaten up, literally, from coast to coast by unruly demonstrators destroying property and injuring police officers. To perpetuate the myth that racism is a systemic problem in police department's throughout the Unites States is wrong and untrue.”
That is an opinion Cohen disagrees with, no matter her role in the resolution.
“This is real, whether or not the POA wants to acknowledge it or not,” Cohen said about issues around race and policing.