Law enforcement watchdogs are fearful Donald Trump’s election as the next U.S. president could be a major setback back to the aggressive federal involvement in reforms in San Francisco and across the country.
While some are worried the president-elect’s pro-law enforcement positions and antipathy toward reforms will slow, if not halt, the anticipated changes, others are optimistic that the efforts already underway will continue under local leadership.
The federal Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services Office recently issued a blistering review of the San Francisco Police Department, which offered a series of recommendations that will be implemented in the coming year with federal oversight.
But the Justice Department’s pressure on The City to follow through with those reforms may not be very strenuous after Trump is sworn into office in January, according to some police watchdogs.
In the past year, the SFPD has been put in the spotlight by activists, reformers and city politics. During that time, former Chief Greg Suhr resigned — Acting Chief Toney Chaplin has headed the department since May — and there were three high-profile fatal police shootings.
Additionally, new revelations about racist text messages among officers and several scathing inquiries have painted the department as mismanaged and culturally retrograde.
But Trump’s pro-enforcement message may not come as bad news to some in the department who are resistant to change.
In a YouTube video from February, for instance, Trump said law enforcement is not respected enough and should be given more authority.
“Sure, there’ll be a bad apple. There’ll be a bad thing happen. And it ends up on the news for two weeks and everybody hates the police,” Trump said. “The fact is, they do an incredible job.”
With such sentiments about police, a former ACLU lawyer said he expects little pressure from the federal government when it comes to reforms.
“I think [the] most likely scenario by far is that this puts the onus back slowly on San Francisco to reform its own Police Department,” said John Crew.
“The Trump Justice Department, including the civil rights division and the COPS office, will inevitably be very different than the Obama administration,” he added. “The good news is, the COPS office report painstakingly details the scope of severe mismanagement inside the SFPD. The bad news is San Francisco officials can no longer count on federal help to reform an agency that they never should have let get this bad.”
Still, several police commissioners say The City is committed to reforming the department regardless of the Trump administration’s position.
“With the election of Donald Trump, the values our city holds dear are in jeopardy,” said Commission President Suzy Loftus. “Now more than ever, we need to fight for our values, including supporting our police reform efforts. We have the opportunity to show the nation what it looks like to work together to rebuild trust and create safe communities for everyone.”
Commissioner, and judge-elect, Victory Hwang said despite Trump’s election, most in The City support reforms and he is confident they will move ahead.
“Everybody wants to see reform go forward in San Francisco regardless of what happens at the federal level,” said Hwang.
The department also reasserted its commitment to reform in a statement to the San Francisco Examiner.
“[The] SFPD will continue the implementation of the report’s recommendations,” the statement reads. “We look forward to building stronger relationships, increasing trust and creating a better San Francisco Police Department. The COPS report remains a roadmap for 21st Century Policing. We are committed to making positive changes, serving our city and working closely with our community partners.”
Meanwhile, Public Defender Jeff Adachi said it’s too early to say what impact Trump will have reforms, but he hopes the new Justice Department doesn’t abandon all the advances made in police reform.
“It would be stupid for the new administration to not follow through with the work that’s been done,” said Adachi. “I hope they understand that this kind of reform is good for policing. The process of improving the performance of [the] Police Department is one that benefits everyone.”
A former U.S. Attorney staffer said he expects the same gutting of the DOJ’s civil rights division, among others, as occurred under the last Bush administration.
“What happened under the Bush administration was horrible. There was a mass exodus. I don’t really see how it could be worse,” said Aaron Zisser, who worked in the DOJ’s civil rights division from 2009 to 2015.
But he said the impact on national police reform efforts may be less serious.
“If anything, because of the enormous work the DOJ has done on police reform and because of Black Lives Matter, it might be harder for the Trump administration to completely shut down the civil rights division,” he added.
As for the Trump administration’s larger impact on law enforcement and reforms in San Francisco, the district attorney and sheriff reiterated their commitment to local leadership.
“The momentum for criminal justice reform is steadily building in California. Our reforms are necessary as they promote fairness, justice and public safety. Here in California, we will continue to work on making our criminal justice system one that is better for all of us,” said District Attorney George Gascon in a statement to the San Francisco Examiner regarding Trump’s election.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Vicki Hennessy said she is hoping for the best in Trump.
“I take to heart the words of Secretary [of State Hillary] Clinton when she asked all Americans to give the new president time to lead. I am hopeful that President Trump will appreciate the value of thoughtfulness, restraint and compassion when considering federal policy that will impact local law enforcement,” said Hennessy.
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