The POA and transformative change

The main entrance of the San Francisco Police Officers Association office in San Francisco August 31, 2016. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

The tide is turning across the nation against police officer associations who have for decades defended the indefensible — gross police brutality, extrajudicial killings of black and brown, overpolicing of communities of color and a culture of near total impunity. In San Francisco, the city of so many political innovations, the loss of clout of our home grown San Francisco Police Officers Association has been startling. Once again, San Francisco leads the way.

As recently as two election cycles ago, the endorsement of the POA was sought by even the most left-wing candidates, if only to avoid an attack from the moderate wing of our local Democratic Party. In this most recent election, the endorsement of the POA has proven toxic to powerful candidates with huge campaign war chests.

Josh Arce went down to defeat for supervisor in District 9, even though he had $80K in dark money from the POA. Scott Wiener won, in part because Jane Kim did not make an issue of his POA support. Formerly closely aligned electeds are bucking our local POA: Supervisor Malia Cohen, her district rocked by the killing of Mario Woods and Jessica Nelson Williams, has distanced herself. London Breed, the newly re-elected board president, is working with Cohen on a host of transformative reforms within the San Francisco Police Department.

This political sea change will accelerate. Because despite the money our POA can bring to bear, and despite harsh rhetoric from its leadership, militant and reactionary police associations are on the wrong side of history. If they remain mired in the past, they are bound to lose more power, much faster. Especially in San Francisco.

The recent Board of Supervisors hearing on the Blue Ribbon Panel was revealing. The hearing wasn’t supposed to be about the POA. But when Judge LaDoris Cordell called them out dramatically as the principle obstacle to change, the people’s house piled on.

Suddenly, spontaneously, the supervisors were saying publicly what they’d experienced privately for years: the bullying, the badgering, the out-of-control threats so long suffered by our electeds were finally being outed. One supervisor said that what had been reported in the newspapers was only the tip of the iceberg. Given how toxic the public exchanges have been, one can only guess what went on behind the scenes.

The POA leadership seems to have half-realized a new era is dawning. But so far, leadership seems ambivalent and even confused, with one large black jackboot in the past, and one tentative moccasin in the future. Let’s examine the evidence:

THE HIT MAN

The POA hired a professional media hit man last spring to craft a public relations stance against Justice for Mario Woods activism, and to launch a mafia vendetta-style attack on their “mortal enemy,” District Attorney George Gascon. Results have been terrible.

The hit man blundered with a press release about a 660 percent increase in crime when he got the statistics totally wrong. The Justice 4 Mario Coalition sprouted other justice offshoots: the Frisco 5, and my small organization. Police Chief Greg Suhr was fired. There was no outpouring by a “silent majority” against the supervisors. And Gascon’s Blue Ribbon Panel has had great press so far.

THE COPS REPORT

Worse — from the perspective of an old-school POA — these developments influenced the Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Report, which corroborated the Blue Ribbon Report and went beyond their conclusions. Because Mayor Ed Lee and Chief Suhr asked for COPS to intervene, Mayor Lee, Acting Chief Toney Chaplin and the POA must now all accept the report and agree to implement. So much for playing hardball. It works … until it doesn’t work anymore.

So the POA leadership has blundered forward. In one press release, they agree that the COPS report is legitimate and must be implemented. In the next, they claim, falsely, that a few cherry-picked sentences exonerate them from racial bias.

THE USE-OF-FORCE DEBACLE

The POA continues to drag its feet on implementing the new use-of-force policy banning shooting at cars (which resulted in the death of Nelson Williams) and banning carotid choke-holds (which resulted in the death of Eric Garner in New York City). But the POA may be poised to slam them back legally, and the mayor may yet decide to pick a new chief that does not have their blessing.

In their executive committee meetings, they must be asking: What the hell is happening? One can imagine them pounding the table and yelling about all the SOBs against them. But one can also hope that, among them, there are calmer voices that see the handwriting on the wall and that may soon begin moving quietly toward alignment with transformational change.

With Donald Trump moving into the White House, POA leadership may think a reactionary status quo has legs. They will be wrong. There is broad revulsion for Trump in San Francisco. With or without the feds and our homegrown POA, San Francisco is moving forward on a new era in policing.

We will have the police force our city deserves within a few short years. This model of force will be duplicated across the nation when the reactionary forces dissipate. If the POA leadership remains an obstacle, that leadership will be changed — or San Francisco will find an organization to represent its police officers as a labor representative that embraces the new order.

It is time for the San Francisco Police Officers Association to embrace the inevitable.

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

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