Tensions between the police union and the department’s civilian oversight body have heightened after two commissioners’ comments that police can, and sometimes do, kill people.
In an Oct. 25 discussion over whether to force officers to waive their right of confidentiality if they want to settle disciplinary cases without a full trial, a union lawyer argued that police officers should have the same rights to confidentiality as other civil servants.
“We draw a distinction between a public employee who carries a gun and can kill people,” Commissioner Theresa Sparks said.
Commissioner Petra DeJesus said, “Police officers have a tremendous impact on the community in terms of carrying guns, the authority that they bring and the fact that they, on occasion, kill people.”
At the next meeting on Nov. 1, union officials criticized the use of the words “kill people.”
“There is a keen distinction between taking one’s life and killing someone,” union Vice President Kevin Martin said. Taking a life, he said, is an unfortunate possibility in a police officer’s job. Killing someone, he said, implies malice.
“Unless an apology is forthcoming tonight, you’re not only going to alienate the people you already have, you’re going to alienate anyone who might even be thinking of joining,” union official Johnson said.
The apology did not come.
The dispute comes as a long-anticipated and hotly debated system for tracking officers’ behavior to identify potential disciplinary problems early on is being put into place. The union holds the power to halt the implementation of the system — set for February — by taking it to arbitration.
Cooperation between the two groups is seen as imperative — while the commission is tasked with creating department policy, the union can obstruct the implementation of policies it does not like. Important pending decisions could be held up indefinitely.
“I do draw a distinction between an individual who may be a gardener in Golden Gate Park and an individual who may be sanctioned by The City and the state to fire a weapon and use deadly force,” Sparks said Thursday. “I don’t see that there is anything to apologize about because I firmly believe that’s a true statement. Nor do I intend to apologize.”
DeJesus said the union pounced on an unfortunate choice of words — the official term is “deadly force,” instead of “kill people.”
“They can pick and choose words out of context that inflame the rank and file or they can tell them the truth and tell them about the resolution that’s pending,” she said.