In March of last year, former police Chief Greg Suhr moved to fire eight of 14 officers who participated in a series of racist text message conversations that scandalized the department and sparked public outrage.
None of those officers were fired because a judge ruled the department had waited too long to proceed with disciplining them for actions taken years ago.
But those officers were not the only ones the department could not adequately punish because the statute of limitations — one year — ran out.
Sixteen other officers who were investigated for misconduct were never punished because the one year statute of limitations ran out on their cases, according to documents obtained by the San Francisco Examiner.
The cases — stemming from 2010 to 2015 — included inappropriate remarks made to prisoners, discourtesy, excessive force, writing inadequate reports and failing to properly take care of department property.
In one of these cases, which was closed in late 2011, the officer resigned. In all the others, the officers are still actively employed with the department. In 15 of the cases, the officers received admonishments — verbal reprimands — from the chief even though the cases ran out of time.
The number of cases may be high, but the nature of the cases is another matter, said Lt. Robert Yick, an Internal Affairs investigator with the SFPD, adding that IA handles about 300 cases a year.
In all but three of the cases, Suhr recommended verbal admonishment. Discipline is considered anything that is written.
“From the time that Suhr was in office, we had three cases that could have been written reprimands that in turn turned out to be admonishments,” said Yick. “All the other cases were allowed to run out because they turned out to be admonishments.”
Suhr resigned from the department at the request of Mayor Ed Lee last month after The City’s latest fatal police shooting.
In the three cases where more serious discipline should have been imposed, the member was not able to be noticed, said Yick.
“It’s just a matter of balancing the caseload. In the end, we let three slip,” Yick said. “Three in five years isn’t so bad.”
The official list of cases, known as 3304, did not include the 14 officers involved in the text message scandal. But if they are added to the count in that time period, 30 cases ran out of time before the proper discipline could be meted out.
The previous chief, according to department records, did not let any disciplinary cases run out of time during his short tenure. Former chief George Gascon is now The City’s district attorney.
Still, in Gascon’s effort to get rid of a backlog in such cases, he offered lighter punishments to many, including Suhr, who former Chief Heather Fong wanted fired over Suhr’s extensive discipline history, including his failure to report a domestic violence incident involving his friend. Suhr instead received a five-day suspension.
That means since Suhr took the helm of the department in April 2011, he has left more cases unresolved than the last two chiefs combined.
What’s more, he had a record of slapping officers on the wrist for disciplinary cases. A review by The City’s police watchdog agency, the Office of Citizen Complaints, shows that the former chief rarely doled out serious punishment.
In 2014, for instance, of the 57 cases in which allegations of police misconduct were sustained, 42 of the officers received “admonishment” and “retraining.”
An admonishment will not be reflected in their records. During that period, 10 officers received written reprimands. None were fired as a result of an OCC investigation.
The issue was taken up in the preliminary findings of the DA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Bias, which found major problems with the department’s discipline.
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 from Sacramento. Still, the panel found the department could be more transparent when it comes to discipline even with current state laws.