More than four years after the U.S. Department of Justice charted a path forward for police reform in San Francisco, the San Francisco Police Department says it has completed less than half, or 131, of the 272 federal recommendations for reform as of Tuesday.
Police Chief Bill Scott has attributed the delay in part to the Trump Administration withdrawing the DOJ from its Collaborative Reform Initiative with the SFPD in 2017. But now, that partnership could be restored under President Joe Biden.
“I think you’re probably going to see some shift back to the U.S. DOJ maybe supporting this reform work,” Scott said at a recent Police Commission meeting. “Based on a lot of what’s been said up to this point, it would not surprise me to see that type of support.”
Biden has committed to investing $300 million into the U.S. DOJ community policing program that entered into the reform initiative with SFPD, known as the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, according to his campaign website.
“Every single police department should have the money it needs to institute real reforms like adopting a national use of force standard, buying body cameras and recruiting more diverse police officers,” Biden wrote in a June op-ed published in USA Today.
Though it has yet to be seen what that means for San Francisco, it might be too late for the U.S. DOJ to re-enter a Collaborative Reform Initiative agreement with the SFPD.
San Francisco kept trudging forward with reform under the oversight of a new independent monitor, the California Department of Justice, after federal officials pulled out of the process.
At a Board of Supervisors hearing Tuesday, Scott promised to complete 94 percent, or 257, of the 272 recommendations by the end of spring. He said the remaining 15 recommendations would require additional funding from The City.
“We are very confident in that number,” Scott said.
But advocates who have followed the process since the 2015 police killing of Mario Woods first prompted former Chief Greg Suhr and the late Mayor Ed Lee to invite the U.S. DOJ to San Francisco say there is reason to doubt Scott will make good on his promise.
Sixty-one of the 88 recommendations that SFPD submitted to the Cal DOJ to be deemed as “substantially compliant,” or completed, during Phase II of the process were rejected and sent back for further work, according to the latest report released by the consultant assisting Cal DOJ with oversight in March 2020.
“Where’s the proof?” Phelicia Jones, founder of the group Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community, said at a press conference Monday. “We say ‘show us the money.’”
Even if the U.S. DOJ restarts the Collaborative Review Initiative, not everyone agrees reentering a voluntary agreement would be enough to reshape the culture of a department that still disproportionately stops and uses force against Black and Latino people.
Retired American Civil Liberties Union attorney John Crew was among those in 2016 who called for the U.S. DOJ to mandate SFPD reform through court orders by launching a “pattern-or-practice” investigation into the department after the Woods shooting.
But the U.S. DOJ instead heeded the requests of the police chief and mayor at the time, launching a softer, voluntary review of the department through the COPS office that resulted in the 272 recommendations for reform being used as benchmarks today.
Crew said he did not believe San Francisco had the political will to reform the police at the time. A stronger pattern-and-practice investigation resulting in a consent decree would have prevented the police union from delaying the reform process, he said.
“Four years later, sadly, I think I’ve been proven right,” Crew told the San Francisco Examiner.
Crew said reforms have suffered from a lack of mandatory deadlines. He urged public officials, including the Board of Supervisors, Mayor London Breed and Scott, to invite the U.S. DOJ to perform a pattern-or-practice investigation.
When the U.S. DOJ first started the collaborative reforms process in San Francisco, Crew said there was an understanding it could lead to a pattern-or-practice investigation and consent decree if the voluntary process stalled out.
“The stick was always looming,” Crew said, using a “carrot-and-stick” metaphor. That “stick” went away under the Trump Administration, however, when former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a memo in 2018 undercutting the use of consent decrees.
But Biden has nominated Vanita Gupta, the former head of the U.S. DOJ’s Civil Rights Division who oversaw pattern-and-practice investigations and consent decrees under President Barack Obama, as his associate attorney general.
Gupta told NPR last November that the Sessions memo should be withdrawn on day one of the Biden Administration.
“The stick is now available again, or will be very, very soon,” Crew said.
No matter how the U.S. DOJ’s re-involvement in police reform shapes up under Biden, newly elected Police Commission President Malia Cohen said she is hopeful it will translate to more resources for the SFPD.
“I want to work with whoever wants to work to get this done,” Cohen told the Examiner. “If it’s the COPS office, fine. If the DOJ wants to assign someone else, fine. I just need the work done.”
While Cohen acknowledged it would take time before new resources “really touch down on the ground,” she said San Francisco reengaging with federal officials could speed up reform.
“It would be a layer of accountability and another set of eyes in addition to the Police Commission pushing for these implementations to occur,” Cohen said.
Hillard Heintze, the consultant assisting Cal DOJ with oversight under contract with the SFPD, is expected to issue its Phase III report on the reforms by the end of summer.
The agreement SFPD has with Cal DOJ, meanwhile, is expected to expire next month after being in place for three years.
But Scott said at the Board of Supervisors that he hoped Cal DOJ would agree to extend the contract.
“I don’t think it would be in our best interest to restart that process with a brand new entity when we would be at that point so close to finishing that work,” Scott said. “It’s collaborative, everybody has agreed to be at the table, nobody is forced to be here, and I would hate to have to reset that.”