A vast federal report more than nine months in the making found San Francisco's Police Department has "concerning deficiencies in every operational area assessed," including use of force, bias, community policing, accountability, recruitment, hiring and promotions.
The U.S. Department of Justice report comes after at least 18 months of tumult in the approximately 2,000-officer police force, beginning in March 2015 with the release of a batch of racist, homophobic and sexist text messages swapped by a group of officers. The city reeled and unsuccessfully moved to fire or otherwise discipline 14 officers involved, but a court challenge funded by the officers' union has kept them on the SFPD payroll.
Then in December 2015, a black man suspected of stabbing someone earlier in the day was confronted by more than a dozen SFPD officers as a bus full of onlookers watched, many recording with their cellphones. Mario Woods was holding a knife, but video analysis of his fatal shooting by five SFPD officers shows he was not threatening anyone with it when the first in a barrage of gunshots erupted. Shortly after, then-Police Chief Greg Suhr called for the review that would produce the report issued Wednesday, while others in the city requested a stronger Department of Justice civil rights investigation.
"It's not a civil rights-lite investigation," said Jonathan Smith, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who headed the section of the DOJ that conducted those investigations from 2010 to 2015. "It's not an alternative. It's something very different."
That's because the 432-page review conducted by the DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) -- which includes 94 findings and 272 recommendations -- lacks any kind of enforcement mechanism that the Civil Rights Division carries out through federal courts. Smith said the COPS office has been very successful at instigating reform of individual issues in other police departments around the country since the creation of its "Collaborative Reform" initiative in 2011, but findings as comprehensive as those about the San Francisco Police Department represent an expansion of the office's work.
"I think the record on badly broken departments being able to fix themselves is not good," he said. "The findings suggest a very serious problem with the culture in the department. It appears there has been a lack of meaningful accountability for a long time and that race bias is part of that culture. ... Without a detailed, enforceable agreement, I am skeptical of the ability of any chief to sustain the reform process over the years that it will take. This is a long, arduous process."
Officials with the office stressed at the announcement of their review in February that its findings and recommendations are "absolutely enforceable in the court of public opinion," and that it would be up to city leadership, the Police Department and San Francisco residents to make sure they're implemented. Suhr and his acting replacement, Toney Chaplin, have committed to treating the recommendations as binding.
"The San Francisco Police Department will accept and implement every single recommendation," city Mayor Ed Lee said at a Wednesday press conference announcing the findings. "We must restore trust and these measures are important steps forward."
"It’s going to be painful up front but rewarding in the back end," Chaplin said. "This past year has not been easy for any of us, not this department or this country."
The report's introduction commends the SFPD's "courage and leadership to open [the] department to scrutiny," and "[n]otwithstanding the deficiencies noted ... also found a police department wanting to provide fair and unbiased policing while protecting the community."
But in its findings, institutional foot-dragging is apparent. For example, the department committed early on to audit officers' text and email communications for evidence of bias, like that exposed by bigoted text messages exposed through criminal investigations. But the department never followed through.
"SFPD members who were tasked with advancing the audit did not display appropriate understanding of the importance of such an audit. Members were more focused on explaining why such an audit was not a good idea," the report says. "This type of disconnect between policy and action is unacceptable. The SFPD must be willing to become more transparent and accountable to the public it serves."
Chaplin said the audit had since been launched, and its results would eventually be made public.
Use of Force
The COPS office found that nine out of the 11 people killed by SFPD officers since May 2013 were people of color, and years later all but one of those cases remain open, long after the involved officers have returned to duty. The report commends a redrafting of SFPD's rules governing use of force, but expresses concern that the new rules have not been implemented as they languish in closed-door negotiations between the city and the police officers' union.
The department does not adequately document or investigate use of force, according to its own current policies, the report says. That's true for relatively minor incidents all the way up to officer-involved shootings.
The department's officer-involved shooting investigation files "are incomplete with no consistent report structure." The way the Police Department tracks use-of-force incidents defies scientific analysis, and the race or ethnicity of the people on the receiving end of force is not associated with the incident. In sum, it's difficult to tell whether SFPD officers use greater force on people of color, because the department doesn't track it.
The report encourages the city to again consider deploying electronic control weapons, commonly known by the brand name Taser, but does not categorically state that SFPD should deploy the weapons. It does recommend banning use of the carotid restraint (sleeper hold) and shooting at moving vehicles, both of which are points of contention in the city's negotiations with the police officers' union.
"We’re now starting to debate about things that are just bad practices," COPS office Director Ron Davis said. "The Department of Justice will not waiver in its position on the carotid restraint: It should be prohibited. We will not waiver about shooting at moving vehicles: It should not occur."
In a written statement, San Francisco Police Officers' Association President Martin Halloran said "tremendous progress" had been made in the closed-door negotiations.
"We believe there are some good recommendations, and others that we don't entirely agree with," he wrote.
The COPS office found that SFPD has several policies that aim to root out bias and promote fair and impartial policing, but they are outdated and far from institutionalized.
"Community perceptions that biased behaviors exist in the SFPD were exacerbated by the explicit bias demonstrated by SFPD officers in the texting scandals and the subsequent failure to take appropriate action," the report says.
It notes a dearth of official findings that any SFPD officer has engaged in biased policing in the past three years, while at the same time noting disproportionate stops, searches and arrests of African-Americans and Latinos.
The report found 37 percent of the department's nearly 550 use-of-force incidents over three years starting in May 2013 involved African Americans. Thirty-five percent involved whites and 18 percent Latinos.
Black drivers were also disproportionately pulled over in relation to their overall numbers in the driving population, according to the report. Nearly 15 percent of 330,000 traffic stops involved African Americans.
It's in its name, so you can bet the idea that police officers are dedicated to tenets of community policing is important to the COPS office. The report found SFPD's policies on the subject to be "out of date and no longer relevant," and that if community policing exists in San Francisco, it is an exception rather than an institutionalized practice.
"How law enforcement and individual officers conduct their affairs matters," said Brian Stretch, U.S. Attorney for California's Northern District. "How officers speak to members of the community matters. How officers treat members of the community matters."
And like almost everything else the COPS office examined, community policing efforts in San Francisco are not adequately tracked.
The report is sprinkled with damning anecdotes of things the federal reviewers encountered during their nine-month probe. In one example, an officer was tasked with reviewing his own use of force.
It discusses internal affairs investigators being blocked by supervisors from interviewing officers suspected of misconduct, and a lack of collaboration with external oversight, like the city's Office of Citizen Complaints.
"At present, the culture of the SFPD is not directed toward building an environment of accountability," the report says. "Policies are disregarded, and the investigations are not robust."
Recruitment, Hiring and Promotions
The report found "disjointed" recruitment and hiring procedures in the Police Department, and some background investigators may be able to derail a potential police recruit because he or she " 'does not fit the image' or 'does not look like' what the investigator believes a police officer should look like."
Nevertheless, the COPS office found a high level of diversity in SFPD candidates entering the police academy. But that diversity is not represented in the department's higher ranks.
"On one hand, San Francisco does have more diversity than most departments around the country," Davis said. "We don’t see the same diversity once you start looking at specialized assignments or promotional opportunities, and that’s significant."
The COPS report provides an extensive evaluation of the SFPD, but experts not affiliated with the city, its Police Department or COPS itself question its feasibility.
Former DOJ Civil Rights Division attorney Jonathan Smith questioned whether the SFPD, even if its leadership wanted to, could really implement such sweeping reforms without federal court oversight. He said the COPS office has proved itself extremely capable at "finding the problems and even identifying solutions."
"But it worries me, what a chief does when they receive a report like that," he said. "There's a tremendous benefit to having a [court-enforceable] comprehensive agreement because it gives you something to rely on when you go to the City Council and when you're negotiating with the police officers' union. ... Unless you've got an extraordinary environment of political will, it's going to be very hard to make that kind of comprehensive reform."
This report was updated with comments from U.S. Attorney Brian Stretch, COPS office Director Ron Davis, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, Interim Police Chief Toney Chaplin, and additional comments from former DOJ Civil Rights Division attorney Jonathan Smith.