Preliminary findings of police bias probe find SFPD lacks discipline, oversight

The San Francisco Police Department is opaque in its discipline, arbitrary in its hiring and biased in its policing of communities of color.

Such were the blistering preliminary findings of a year-long inquiry into The City’s troubled police department that was launched by District Attorney George Gascon and released to the San Francisco Examiner Monday.

The findings come as activist allies of five hunger strikers known as the “Frisco 5,” who ended their 17-day fast last weekend, continue to pressure Mayor Ed Lee to fire Chief Greg Suhr.

The initial findings of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement note that there are a number of serious issues in the department related to everything from discipline, hiring and oversight to lack of transparency and biased policing of minority communities.

Perhaps the most damning findings were that the department engages in controversial “stop and frisk” practices and that no internal review of systematic bias was conducted following the release of racist texts sent by officers in 2015.

“A common theme from the working groups is that the SFPD is not transparent and lacks accountability because there is no auditing of its functions in any meaningful way, including with regard to hiring; background investigations; training, use-of-force and officer-involved shooting investigations; and internal affairs,” the panel’s executive director, Anand Subramanian, wrote in an email to the San Francisco Examiner.

Launched in May 2015, just a month after revelations surfaced of a handful of police officers sending racist and bigoted text messages, the three-judge panel has faced financial and political opposition from the start.

The most vocal opposition to the panel has been the Police Officer’s Association, which at first questioned its purpose and authority, among other roadblocks. Most recently the union’s two most prominent officers — President Martin Halloran and consultant Gary Delagnes — alleged in a statement to union lawyers that Gascon himself had made racially offensive remarks in front of them when he was chief.

In response to the independent panel’s findings, Halloran accused the District Attorney of manipulating information.

“George Gascon’s Blue Ribbon Report is biased, one-sided, and illegitimate,” Halloran said. “Gascon handpicked his own panel, and refused to hear from any witnesses who disagree with him, and so Gascon’s report should be filed in the fiction section of the library.”

Even the mayor gave little support to the panel after it was launched, saying he did not want to support an action that would pit separate departments against one another. After Lee denied a request for funding, the panel’s executive director’s pay was found through a grant obtained by Gascon’s office.

The controversial panel has heard from Suhr, who denied there is any systematic bias in the ranks, as well as Gascon, who disagreed with Suhr. The body also heard from current and former police officers, as well as others involved in the criminal justice system.

Meanwhile, in light of another racist text message scandal, Suhr announced all members of the San Francisco Police Department will participate in training to prevent harassment and discrimination in the workplace. He has said no such views are compatible with being a police officer in San Francisco.

For instance, the department announced Friday that an officer overheard by other police allegedly making racist remarks will face discipline up to and including firing.

Findings

The Blue Ribbon Panel is comprised of three distinguished judges: LaDoris Hazzard Cordell, Cruz Reynoso and Dickran Tevrizian. They were chosen for their records in civil rights and their independence. None are being paid.

Seven pro bono law firms took on areas areas of inquiry and will give a public report on the issue Monday night before the judges.

The law firm that looked into stops, searches and arrests found that the department engages in controversial “stop and frisk” practices and there is a disparity when it come to black and Latino citizens. Those communities “overwhelmingly report bias and a lack of community policing.”

But even the data collected on such stops, searches and arrests is incomplete, noted the finding.

When it comes to hiring and promotions, the department is “highly discretionary, leading to high potential for bias and favoritism,” found the law firm looking into this area. The finding also noted that the background investigation process is not transparent enough.

The findings appear to mirror allegations that surfaced last year in which Suhr allegedly gave a family friend special treatment while in training, the San Francisco Examiner previously reported.

Use of force practices and policing, which are undergoing major mandated changes, which include a federal review, following the Dec. 2, 2015, killing of Mario Woods, were found to be in dire need of updating. What’s more, the department’s internal data collection on use of force incidents is done in a way that discourages auditing and review from outside parties.

The law firm that looked into internal discipline had little good to say. It found “there is no transparency in the disciplinary process.” What’s more, it found the disciplinary guidelines are outdated and there is little tracking of the outcome of discipline.

Police disciplinary hearings are by law barred from public scrutiny as are the names of the officers involved, so it’s hard to say to what degree the department is prevented from changing these practices without new legislation mandating it from Sacramento.

Still, the panel found the department could be more transparent when it comes to discipline even with state laws.

The department appears to have little to no external oversight, found the law firm looking into that matter.

For instance, the panel’s initial findings said there is no entity regularly auditing the department. And investigations into police misconduct allegations by the department’s watchdog, the Office of Citizen Complaints, “rarely result in disciplinary consequences, and when they do, the discipline imposed is almost always mild.”

No department-led inquiry into systemic bias was launched after the 2015 racist text message misconduct case, which was the impetus for the panel, found the panel. Suhr has said there was a cursory review of the officers involved to see if there were patterns that could have been spotted. Suhr also recommend that eight of them be fired, but because the department let the year-long statute of limitations run out, a judge recently ruled they cannot be let go.

The law firm that looked into the department’s culture found there is disagreement about whether bias is institutionalised. But the panel did find the political and vocal police union is seen as one and the same with the department, which harms the department’s image.

Finally, the department’s sharing of crime data “is inconsistent and insufficient to track potential bias.”

The panel is set to announce its preliminary hearing at a public forum at 5:30 p.m. Monday at 762 Fulton St. in the Buriel Clay Theater.

The findings are expected to be made final after being reviewed by the three-judge panel, who will then release their reform recommendations.

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