Five skirmishes before the Long War

Among the police transformation and accountability community, there is cautious rejoicing. In the last two weeks, we have won five important skirmishes. Now, the transports are loading, the aircraft are revving up, the supply lines snake into the distance and the Long War is about to begin.

But first, what we’ve won so far …

We won a reform-minded police commissioner to replace outgoing Commissioner Victor Hwang. Professor Bill Ong Hing was not the first choice of many, but in a meeting with San Franciscans for Police Accountability, he convinced most of us that he is, indeed, deeply qualified, ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work.

We won preliminary censure of Officer Roger Morse — a shooter in the case of Alex Nieto — for what may be a terroristic threat on social media after winning acquittal in the civil trial for the fatal shooting of Nieto on Bernal Hill. A final determination has not been made, but if Morse’s comments were not a threat, they were at least “conduct reflecting discredit on the Department,” according to the Office of Citizens Complaints.

We won a memorial in Nieto’s honor — which will be installed where he was shot on Bernal Hill — in a 9-1 vote by the Board of Supervisors, with only Supervisor Mark Farrell opposing. Farrell may regret his vote and his tortured defense of police officers in a statement he made at the Board of Supervisors. And the POA is, of course, angry as hornets.

We won big with Mayor Ed Lee’s appointment of Chief Bill Scott, the highest-ranking African American in the Los Angeles Police Department. Scott presented himself at the mayor’s news conference as a humble, thoughtful leader. When asked about the POA, Scott said his hand will be at the top of the baseball bat, so he will get the first swing. Police Commission President Suzy Loftus was beaming and congratulatory. Board of Supervisors President London Breed was welcoming but blunt, remarking that the San Francisco Police Department needed not to rebuild trust — as Loftus said — but to create trust in the first place. Breed said she expected officers who did not deserve to wear the uniform would be fired, which led to an outburst by an activist yelling, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

We won implementation of a new use-of-force policy, to be approved at the Police Commission after languishing in the “meet and confer” process with the POA for months. The new policy outlaws officers from shooting at cars and from using the carotid restraint that lead to the choking death of Eric Garner in New York City. The policy also sidesteps on Tasers and makes the sanctity of live and crisis intervention mandatory in most cases. This is a huge improvement on the old use-of-force policy, which was last updated in the 1990s.

These five skirmishes are important, especially with respect to our new chief and newest commissioner. Personnel is policy. The Long War begins auspiciously with a new leader at the SFPD and a Police Commission that may have the votes to override Mayor Lee if he proves to be a too-timid proponent of transformational change. And the Long War begins with a united Board of Supervisors, led by supervisors Breed and Malia Cohen, two African-American moderates who seem to have broken completely with the POA and fully embraced transformative change.

So, what could possibly go wrong?


The POA seems chastened, momentarily. A recent news release stressed its willingness to work with the new outsider chief. But a private email to the rank and file is chock full of tantrums and entitlement. And POA President Martin Halloran’s annual recap in the POA Journal has the same noxious, belligerent tone as always.

Halloran cites the “horrifically tragic year for law enforcement throughout our country” with “ambushes and assassination of police officers up by 300%.” He speaks of “[SFPD] Officer Kevin Downs … shot in the head by a crazed gunman …” Downs was out of the hospital visiting the Taraval Police Station and the POA board three weeks after the shooting, while the mentally ill gunman died in a hail of SFPD bullets, some from the cop who executed Nieto.

Throughout his harangue against “politicians jumping on the ‘bash the cops’ bandwagon,” Halloran is abusive and contemptuous of San Francisco’s elected officials, with his most savage attack against Mario Woods, whom he won’t name but dehumanizes as a “gang member … wielding a bloody knife [he] refused to drop [who] committed ‘blue suicide.’”

Then, Halloran doubles down on Jessica Nelson Williams, “another individual with mental health issues, under the influence of narcotics, barreling down the street in a stolen car…” It’s a narrative created from whole cloth. Williams was a homeless mother of five, who was shot in the belly as she struggled to get out of her seatbelt in a car pinned against a fence. And finally, Halloran announced on Twitter that he changed his mind: He won’t step down, “due to recent events.”

Truth is the first casualty in every war. Honor soon follows. The Long War begins.

On one side, the Allies: the Police Commission (in part), the new vhief (we hope and expect), the Board of Supervisors (with exceptions), the mayor (maybe, we’ll see) and most importantly, the traumatized, over-policed communities of color and their broader progressive supporters in San Francisco.

On the other side, the Axis: the reactionary POA leadership, the 10 to 15 percent of SFPD officers who are fully loaded, trip-wired, gung ho, tip-of-the-spear warrior cops driving the organization, Supervisor Farrell (after he solves homelessness with sticks disguised as carrots), and perhaps the hardcore Libertarians and Republicans who cheer the gentrification cleansing in private and find black and brown deaths an acceptable cost.

The Long War will be won in the next five to 10 years, only if those doing the work of transformation from a warrior to a guardian culture stay focused and build the mass movement that, in the past, has been the only way social justice happens.

The Long War has only just begun.

David Carlos Salaverry is one of the founders of San Franciscans for Police Accountability.

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