SF Police Commission to get new members in era of reform

A new iteration of the San Francisco Police Commission could meet for the first time next week with two new members in its ranks who both have experience questioning the police as criminal defense attorneys.

A Board of Supervisors committee nominated Cindy Elias, a former deputy public defender, and defense attorney John Hamasaki to fill a pair of empty seats on the Police Commission last Thursday.

The full board is expected to approve the nominations next Tuesday so that the Police Commission, which is charged with overseeing policies and discipline in the San Francisco Police Department, can hold a meeting the following day for the first time in what would be more than a month.

The nominations come amid talk of police reform and a series of changes to police leadership in San Francisco, with the Police Commission short four members and SFPD Chief Bill Scott potentially out the door for a job leading the Los Angeles Police Department.

The Police Commission has not met since May 2 because two commissioners resigned and the Board of Supervisors blocked Mayor Mark Farrell from reappointing another two members whose terms expired.

The supervisors who voted to block the mayoral appointees, Joe Marshall and Sonia Melara, argued that the appointments should be left up to the next mayor to decide after the June 5 election.

Marshall and Melara were also criticized as being too close to the San Francisco Police Officers Association. Neither commissioner had come out against a ballot measure on Tasers from the union that the chief called the “antithesis” of reform.

During a seven-hour meeting at the Board of Supervisors Rules Committee, Elias and Hamasaki blasted Proposition H. The measure would set a policy for the use of stun guns that the Police Commission could not change.

Elias, an enforcement attorney for California Labor Commissioner’s Office who previously worked 12 years as a deputy public defender, said she is concerned that the measure would “circumvent the police commissioners’ authority to implement policies behind how Tasers will be used.”

Hamasaki, a private defense attorney who also works civil rights cases, called the measure an “attempted coup of the authority of the Police Commission.”

John Crew, a retired ACLU attorney and opponent of Proposition H, told the San Francisco Examiner that the nominations of Elias and Hamasaki are part of a growing resistance to the police union at City Hall that he called an “awakening.”

“We are at a moment here when the city leadership is waking up,” Crew said. “We are not going to get police reform by enabling the POA’s resistance.”

But Supervisor Malia Cohen, who grilled the 11 of 12 applicants that showed up to the committee hearing and also voted against the reappointments of Marshall and Melara earlier this month, told the Examiner she is just seeking to build a commission that is fair and respected.

“I just want a fair Police Commission that will fairly listen to the disciplinary hearings for officers and will fairly listen to the public,” Cohen said. “I want a commission that the POA can respect as well as the community. It’s a policy-making body that has been pulled or pushed too far.”

Elias and Hamasaki both said at the hearing that they would be fair and impartial as commissioners.

Elias, the child of farmworkers, grew up in a poor California community where she said witnessed instances of police abusing their power.

Elias made news in 2011 when she uncovered video that allegedly showed police stealing from a residential hotel room.

“One of my clients was arrested on an offense,” Elias said. “He said that the police officers had taken items from his hotel room, a laptop and a camera. I investigated that and come to find out that there was video that showed that.”

Hamasaki sued San Francisco over the police response to a domestic violence incident that resulted in the killing of 35-year-old Cecilia Lam. A judge dismissed the lawsuit last year, finding that San Francisco was not liable.

Hamasaki said during the hearing that the “thin blue line” ideology of some police officers who refuse to turn against their peers needs to change.

“There’s nothing wrong with having a strong and united police force,” Hamasaki said. “That stops when the misconduct starts within a department.”

As for Melara and Marshall, Farrell has since re-submitted their names for appointment.

But the Board of Supervisors could again reject their appointments, opening the door for Farrell or the next mayor to nominate entirely new commissioners.

“As it relates to Dr. Marshall and Ms. Melara, no new evidence or information has been submitted with their applications as to why they should be reconsidered so I don’t foresee votes changing,” Cohen told the Examiner.

In an interview, Melara told the Examiner she has been wrongly painted as an ally of the police union and for the first time spoke publicly against the Taser ballot measure.

“Definitely I am against Proposition H,” Melara said. “It’s been very clear from the beginning of how I worked on the policy that I was very much in favor of having the Taser issue being made in part by a decision from the commission.”

Melara said the Police Commission is losing institutional memory without her or Marshall on board.

“This particular commission requires that you really, really understand the issues, the law, because we handle disciplinary actions,” Melara said. “Anyone who gets to the commission thinking that they are going to change the world, they are in for a surprise.”


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