San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said Tuesday SFPD has completed 29 of 272 recommendations for reform issued by the U.S. Department of Justice. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Slow to reform, SFPD touts lack of police shootings as sign of progress

Department has completed about 10 percent of federal recommendations for improvement

In the three years since a series of police shootings and a racist text messaging scandal spurred a federal review of the San Francisco Police Department, police brass have completed just over 10 percent of the resulting 272 recommendations for reform.

But at a Board of Supervisors hearing Tuesday, Police Chief Bill Scott cited the lack of police shootings in the past year and steady declines in uses of force since 2016 as evidence that reform efforts are well underway.

“This is not a check box type of body of work where we check a recommendation done and move on,” Scott told the supervisors. “This is an all inclusive evolving process that takes time.”

That didn’t satisfy activists who rallied outside City Hall before the hearing. The group argued that police still disproportionately use force against black people, and questioned the independence of the consultant helping to oversee the reforms.

“This is staggering,” Ben Paul, a member of the Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community – Justice for Mario Woods coalition, said at the rally. “At this pace, they will complete the reforms in 2046.”

The hearing called by Supervisor Sandra Fewer for Tuesday was the first time that police had updated the board on the status of reform efforts in two years.

The process started in February 2016 when the U.S. DOJ launched a review of the SFPD at the request of former Police Chief Greg Suhr, who was facing criticism and later calls for his resignation over the fatal police shooting of Mario Woods.

The Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office returned months later with 94 finding and 272 recommendations for the SFPD that dealt with five areas needing improvement including use of force, bias and community policing.

The federal government was working on its first report documenting the progress of the SFPD reforms in September 2017 when the Trump Administration abruptly ended federal oversight of the Police Department.

But Scott said the SFPD continued to move forward with the reforms and, in February 2018, entered into an agreement with the California Department of Justice to pick up where the federal government left off.

Under that agreement, the SFPD contracted with a consulting firm called Hillard Heintze to independently monitor the process.

In total, the SFPD had completed 29 of the 272 original recommendations as of earlier this month, according to the chief.

Another 13 have been submitted to the independent consultant for review, while eight have made it further in the process and are before the state DOJ for review, according to Scott.

Fifty two of the recommendations were submitted by the SFPD as being finished, but returned to the department for further work, Scott said.

Most of the completed recommendations deal with use of force, Scott said.

In December 2016, the SFPD updated its use-of-force policy for the first time in two decades to ban the carotid hold and prevent officers from shooting at moving vehicles. It has also rolled out an early intervention system to flag officers at risk of committing misconduct.

“Use of force is down across the board and we’ve also seen decreases in every racial and ethnic category,” Scott said. “We still have a lot of work to do. There are disparities in our communities in terms of African Americans, Latino men that have force used against them.”

In the first four months of 2016, the SFPD recorded 952 use-of-force incidents, according to Scott. That number fell to 514 in the first quarter of 2019.

The concerns arise when comparing the declining population of black residents to the number of use-of-force incidents involving African Americans.

“Why is it uses of force on black people are 10 times that of whites,” Phelicia Jones, founder of the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition, said at the rally. “I cannot stand by and continue to watch the racism that continues in San Francisco against black people. It is a shame and I just want to know who cares?”

In terms of police shootings, the SFPD had 11 in 2010 but has not had one reported since June 2018. That does not include two off-duty police shooting, such as in El Cerrito earlier this year, or incidents in which officers shot at a suspect and missed.

Debra Kirby, a representative of Hillard Heintze, commended the SFPD on its progress at the hearing.

“There has been a continued progression and there is work to be done,” Kirby said. “But we have hope and we believe that the department does remain committed to completing all of those 272 recommendations.”

Her presentation to the supervisors prompted activists to question the independence of her firm, which is contracted by the SFPD and works with both the department and the state DOJ.

“If you are working for the department that is getting investigated, and the department that is doing the investigating, that is not independent,” said activist Magick Altman said. “I just heard the praise for the Police Department throughout the entire report.”

Hillard Heintze released its first report on the SFPD reforms in May. A subsequent report is due in mid-December.

Supervisor Fewer said she was looking forward to seeing the next report.

“In ‘Phase 2’ we should see more of these recommendations actually implemented out,” Fewer said at the hearing.

S.F. Examiner Staff Writer Joshua Sabatini contributed to this report.

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