Ilyich Sato, left, sits near the curb with supporters on April 25 during Day 5 of a hunger strike protesting police violence outside the Mission Police Station in San Francisco. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

EDITORIAL: ‘Frisco Five’ spotlight Mayor Lee’s deficiencies

The hunger strike of the “Frisco Five,” who have been camped out in front of the Mission Police Station since April 21, has given renewed life to calls for police reform in San Francisco.

Edwin Lindo, 29, Sellassie Blackwell, 39, Ike Pinkston, 42, Ilyich Sato, 42, and Maria Cristina Gutierrez, 66 — all longtime San Francisco residents who said they have been greatly troubled by recent incidents of violence and bias within the department — say they won’t eat until Police Chief Greg Suhr is fired or quits.

Suhr says he has no intention of resigning, and Mayor Ed Lee says he won’t fire Suhr. So it is a test of wills and of time. The bold and drastic actions of the “Frisco Five” bring a dire immediacy to the protest and have the potential to push this issue to its breaking point. Blackwell, a local rapper, told the San Francisco Examiner this week that he joined the hunger strike in part to protect his 13-year-old daughter from police violence. “I never, ever want to think about her being killed,” he said. “You know what? I do now.”

The hunger strike has brought hundreds of protesters to the streets this week. The cries for police reform in The City show no sign of abating, nearly five months after video footage of the Dec. 2 fatal shooting of Mario Woods by a group of officers on a Bayview street seemed to contradict the department’s own account.

Incidents around another police killing earlier this month, of homeless man Luis Gongora, have yet to be fully explained. In addition, the department’s exploding scandal in recent months of multiple officers sending racist and bigoted text messages to one another have fueled the growing ire of protesters and community leaders who see the SFPD as a rotten institution.

Late last week, Mayor Lee sent an open letter to “all members of the San Francisco Police Department” acknowledging “we have seen that outrageous acts of bigotry and intolerance can occur within the Department.”

Lee’s comments were designed to frame the recent bad behavior as exceptions, dismissing those responsible, as he described them earlier in the week, as a few “bad apples” and not part of a larger systemic problem.

More troubling, Lee seems to indicate in his letter that no further reforms are needed, beyond the rather weak-kneed plans already announced. “I call upon each of you to ensure that the reforms underway,” Lee wrote, “initiated by me, Chief Suhr and the Commission, under the oversight of the United States Department of Justice — move forward as quickly as possible.”

This might be news to District Attorney George Gascon, who has launched the panel into potential racial bias in the police department. And The City’s own investigations into the death of Gongora are still pending. But Lee is apparently confident that we know all we need to as a city at this point to ensure responsible policing.

Suhr on Friday used strong language to condemn the newest transcript of hateful text messages between SFPD officers, saying, “These despicable text messages made clear that these former officers were not fit to serve our city.”

Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who released the texts, indicated that they spoke of a troubled department: “There is a problem in the SFPD and I don’t think Chief Suhr can contest that. It would be naive to believe these officers’ bigotry was reserved solely for text messages. It is a window into the biases they harbored.”

Lee ended his letter by reminding officers to uphold their “Not on My Watch” pledge, a promise they took to report any unethical or bigoted behavior by their colleagues. Far better, Lee should be held to this same pledge. Our elected mayor also should recognize his own responsibility to take a stand against hate, injustice and bigotry in our police department. It is increasingly apparent that he is unwilling to make the tough changes that are needed to uphold that duty.

As the “Frisco Five” sat outside the Mission Police Station last Tuesday — Day 6 of their hunger strike — giving new urgency and power to the calls for change, Lee told reporters, “This chief is still a very good chief, and [in] my mind, he’s doing the best we can.”

Lee has so far refused to distance himself from Chief Suhr. How much longer will this position be viable for Lee and still have the public’s trust? Will there be a point where Lee’s loyalty to Suhr interferes with his ability to act as mayor?

We may already be there.

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