SF Police Commission President Suzy Loftus: Reformer or politician?

Suzy Loftus leaned forward in her chair on a recent afternoon in the Western Addition’s Ella Hill Hutch Community Center. A pair of teens sat across from Loftus and asked her about how she plans to change policing in San Francisco.

“For many communities that are affected by violence, distrust of the police is not a new concept,” Loftus said in response to one of the questions. “But we haven’t really found a good way to build that relationship long-term.”

The interview — for a film the teens are making — is just one example of Loftus’ persona as part of her official duties.

As the president of the San Francisco Police Commission, Loftus has been the face of Mayor Ed Lee’s major police reform efforts since the fatal shooting of Mario Woods, who was killed by police in the Bayview on Dec. 2, 2015.

Loftus, 41, at the helm of the commission since 2014 and a member since 2012, brings a lot to the table. Her approachable demeanor, experience, identity as a prosecutor and political training all lend themselves to her role during a tumultuous time for the San Francisco Police Department.

Over the course of Loftus’ tenure, the Police Department has been plagued by scandals that include two racist text messaging incidents, numerous fatal police shootings, a track record of racially imbalanced policing and the resignation of Chief Greg Suhr.

Loftus’ style, too, has aided her when dealing with the vocal — and sometimes hostile — crowds she and the commission have faced over the past six months. She is at once folksy and matter of fact; approachable in her tone and style, which gives real attention to community concerns, and firm in her resolve to push forward some reforms at a quicker pace than in the past.

“It’s a mistake to interpret my kindness as weakness,” she said.

Behind Loftus’ mostly smiling public face is a political player with ties to inner circles in Mayor Ed Lee’s office. For much of her professional life, she worked for Attorney General Kamala Harris — then serving as San Francisco’s district attorney — for whom she still works as general counsel.

Despite her claims of having no political ambitions, Loftus’ name has been floated in recent years for a supervisorial appointment and even sheriff. And, like Harris, she is an alumna of Emerge California, which trains women to become politicians.

Loftus’ political allies were on display at her confirmation hearings in April before the Rules Committee. They included almost every sitting police commissioner, community activists, clergy and, perhaps most importantly, the police union.

Loftus’ skills and professional background may be assets, but according to some critics, they may also prevent her from implementing lasting police reforms.

Many police watchdogs concede that Loftus is reform-minded and that she has made commendable changes to the department. But they fear her approach is too reliant upon building consensus and that she is hesitant to force real reforms down a reluctant department’s throat.

Critics say the San Francisco Police Officers Association is the elephant in the room, and without the political will to cow the police union, no real reform of culture — let alone policy — is possible.

“That’s not to say Suzy Loftus is a bad person,” said Dewitt Lacey, a civil rights lawyer. “She’s got to take on this huge fight with the POA, and if she wants any political future in San Francisco, she’s gotta make friends with them because they are a politically powerful entity.”

The question remains: Is Loftus a transformative figure who’s willing and able to change the Police Department, or are her collaborative methods, however heartfelt, a liability when it comes to the political power of The City’s police union?

Childhood shapes future

Loftus’ personal story, told more than once to the public and press, is that of an immigrant single mother who raised her and her sister in San Francisco. It’s both a tale of the quintessential San Francisco experience and of the wounds The City inflicted upon her family.

As a preteen, Loftus took one BART train and two Muni buses to get to school every day; as a toddler, her mother brought her to protests. Her mother was stabbed in a parking lot when Loftus was 3, and Loftus was hit by a car when she was 9. The urban story ended when Loftus was 12; she and her family relocated to rural Placer County, where her liberal city upbringing was challenged by a conservative region.

Loftus, herself a mother of three, often refers to these stories — at least some — when in public, and they work to humanize her. She also often refers to her mother, who watches each Police Commission meeting from home, as if the woman is her moral authority.

Her mother’s presence extends beyond the nods at weekly commission meetings. Loftus admits she became a prosecutor in part because of her mother’s attack. Even the most memorable case in her career in the District Attorney’s Office involved advocating for a brutalized woman.

The power of the POA

When video of Mario Woods’ killing at the hands of police spread across social media in December, Loftus, like many others, was outraged and began calling for change.

Since then, she has been leading the police reform effort mandated by Mayor Ed Lee, including the implementation of a new use-of-force policy, which emphasizes de-escalation techniques and the sanctity of life, and the introduction of body-worn cameras for police officers.

As the reforms have advanced, a debate over the root of police violence and bias has raged.

Loftus’s main focus has been rebuilding trust between the police and the communities they patrol. And while she admits that institutionalized racism, homophobia and sexism exist in the criminal justice system, she stops short of saying as much about the Police Department.

“If there was a culture of sweeping things under the rug, those officers would not be facing charges,” Loftus told the Rules Committee during her confirmation hearing. “They would not be facing a Commissioner Loftus and they would not then choose to resign because they are quite certain of what their fate is.”

The recently released Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement identified that the Police Commission, under Loftus’ leadership, has made moves in the right direction. But the process isn’t transparent enough and the commission isn’t wielding the power it possesses to confronting the central hurdle to reforms: the police union.

“She’s up against the POA, and the POA is so powerful,” said Deputy Public Defender Rebecca Young, who sat on the committee that helped craft SFPD’s body camera policy. “They are actively blocking reforms.”

Young claims the POA and its president, Martin Halloran, has repeatedly refused to admit that racism is a problem in the department and that the union has been doing all it can to stifle reforms around transparency and oversight.

“Anyone watching recent events in the city and county of San Francisco could not make that kind of statement in good conscience,” Young said.

She also said no policies or training will stick unless there is a real cultural change and that much of that culture is dictated by the POA.

At least once in a public forum, Loftus has stood up to the union over use-of-force reforms that were opposed by the union. But when it came to backing a now defunct Sen. Mark Leno bill — opposed by the union — that would have made police discipline matters more transparent, Loftus balked.

Still, not everyone agrees the POA is the political powerhouse it’s painted out to be.

“The POA’s power is overstated, and I have a really good relationship with the POA and I don’t always agree with the POA,” Supervisor Scott Wiener said. “To suggest that the POA is some all powerful presence, I think, would be a surprise to their leadership.”

San Francisco Police Commission President Suzy Loftus listens to community members during a police commission meeting at City Hall on Feb. 10. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)
San Francisco Police Commission President Suzy Loftus listens to community members during a police commission meeting at City Hall on Feb. 10. (Ekevara Kitpowsong/Special to S.F. Examiner)

Discipline isn’t the only answer

More than once, Loftus has said reforms must include increased transparency, training and accountability, and notes that her model for inclusive reform is the best way to get that done.

But aside from body cameras and use-of-force reforms, few of the accomplishments Loftus touts as a police commissioner include successful reforms that increased accountability or transparency. She said she is moving ahead to make discipline cases more open and pointed to training programs in crisis intervention and implicit bias as examples of progress.

“I don’t believe that discipline is the only answer,” she said, proudly noting that more police officers have been fired for wrongdoing under her time on the commission than in the past.

The Blue Ribbon Panel also commended the commission’s record of discipline.

Loftus says forcing change on people has not brought the department to “the promised land.”

But for two decades starting in 1978, a federal consent decree forced the department to change the way it hired and promoted women and minorities. The result was a far more diverse department.

Others argue that lack of discipline, or the threat of discipline, is what perpetuates a culture of impunity.

“The real shortcoming of the Police Commission right now [is that] there hasn’t really been any real discipline or holding these officers accountable for their behavior,” Lacey, the civil rights lawyer, said.

‘Ultimate authority’

Loftus, who denies her actions as a police commissioner are politically motivated, says she has and is willing to stand up to the union.

“I am frustrated when I see delays from anyone, including the POA,” she said, pointing out that she only defers to the union when it is a matter of law affecting working conditions.

But some observers question how deep the roots of reform run in Loftus.

“The commission has ultimate authority, but they aren’t using that authority in a manner that inspires confidence in their leadership,” Young said.

When it came to the body camera policy earlier this year, the central issue over the policy was over whether officers would be allowed to review footage after critical incidents. The commission voted to give the chief the power to choose, but after months of meet and confer with the union, city labor negotiators came to a different agreement: Officers will be required to make a brief statement before being allowed to view footage.

When the policy came back to the commission, Loftus pushed it through.

That behind-closed-doors decision angered civil liberties groups and other commissioners, who felt the union was meddling in affairs beyond its right.

“While the commission has attempted to engage a variety of stakeholders, the POA continues to have power in the policymaking process that is disproportionate to that of other stakeholders,” noted the Blue Ribbon Panel report.

But former police union President Gary Delagnes recently wrote in the San Francisco Police Officers Association Journal that this vision of the union is wrong.

“The reality for every San Francisco police officer is that you have become a political football for nearly every San Francisco politician, police commissioner, and self-promoting politico in this city,” Delagnes wrote. “The POA is vilified as obstructionists because we don’t acquiesce to these clowns’ every whim.”

No one knows what it will take to end the problems plaguing the Police Department — and Loftus admits as much. At her confirmation hearing in April before the Board of Supervisors’ Rules Committee, she admitted that even she can’t predict if her approach will truly change the force.

“Nothing changes on a dime,” she said from a podium with a group of supporters behind her. Loftus said The City will only know if it has sufficiently changed the force “if in 10 years, we look back and see fewer [of] such fatal incidents.”

Political reform has winners and losers. It remains to be seen which side Loftus and her allies will be on.


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