SFPD’s December 2, 2015 execution of Mario Woods by firing squad in front of a bus full of school children, among many other eye witnesses, has inspired a movement demanding SFPD accountability that is steadily growing and achieving wins.
A Blue Ribbon Panel of retired judges and pro bono attorneys charged by District Attorney George Gascon to determine the depth of racism at SFPD, the US Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office, and the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury have provided detailed blueprints of what needs to change at SFPD.
Pressured by activists, elected officials have begun to respond, although much remains to be done.
In January 2016, the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition began meeting weekly. Protestors disrupted Mayor Lee’s inauguration demanding that he fire Chief Greg Suhr, who he had appointed in 2011, and also disrupted Mayor Lee’s remarks at a celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Meanwhile, an SFPD panel cleared officers who executed Mario in December to return to work. The San Francisco Police Officers Association displayed disregard for the public and its oversight at the January 20, 2016 meeting of the San Francisco Police Commission, where dozens of plain clothes, armed officers arrived en masse, blocked the community’s access to the microphone, testified, and then left the meeting, shouting “this is how we win- show of force.”
On January 21, Mayor Lee wrote to US Attorney General Loretta Lynch requesting that the US Department of Justice investigate Mario Woods slaying and provide guidance about how to restore trust between the community and SFPD. On February 1, 2016 Mayor Lee and Chief Suhr were joined by Director Ronald Davis of the United States Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) and Acting U.S. Attorney Brian J. Stretch of the Northern District of California, to announce the launch of a “collaborative reform process.” Activists had wanted the USDOJ to initiate a Civil Rights Division Pattern and Practice investigation that would result in SFPD’s reorganization under consent decree, with oversight by a Federal judge. This type of investigation has teeth. Instead, US Attorney General Loretta Lynch decided to send the COPS office, who makes recommendations that are up to the community to enforce.
San Francisco hosted the Superbowl on February 7, 2016. Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition protested in downtown San Francisco, marching from Union Square to Superbowl City. Alicia Keys announced her support of Mario Woods during her performance at Superbowl City, while the Last 3 Percent Coalition helped Beyonce’s backup dancers demonstrate their support at the Superbowl.
On February 26, 2016 the Justice4Amilcar Perez Lopez Coalition led a protest to commemorate one year since SFPD plainclothes officers shot Amilcar six times in the back. That same day, results of Amilcar’s autopsy were released that contradicted SFPD’s story of why he was killed. The Justice 4 Amilcar Perez Lopez Coalition began weekly vigils at the Mission Police Station to demand District Attorney George Gascon indict Amilcar’s killers.
As of this writing, District Attorney George Gascon has yet to determine whether he will indict Amilcar’s killers, one of eleven investigations of fatal SFPD officer involved shootings dating to September 2014 he currently has open. The community is furious that these investigations drag on for so long, especially because when defendants are people of color, DA Gascon acts quickly.
In March, the civil trial of SFPD officers accused of using excessive force commenced with a beautiful ceremony organized by the Justice 4 Alex Nieto Coalition. Alex Nieto, a proud son of San Francisco, Buddhist, and City College student striving to become a parole officer to serve his community, had been eating a burrito before work when an unleashed dog started to bother him. Newcomers to San Francisco racially profiled him for wearing a red 49ers jacket and called SFPD. SFPD rolled up and shot at him 59 times, within 2 minutes of arriving, with 14 bullets piercing his body. On March 10, 2016 the SFPD officers who executed Alex were found not to have used excessive force by a nearly all-white jury. The evening of the verdict, one of the accused officers, Officer Roger Morse, posted this to Facebook:
Despite the heightened scrutiny following Mario’s slaying, SFPD officers opened fire on Luis Gongora Pat, a Mayan immigrant who was unhoused and laying prostrate on the ground, within 22 seconds of arriving on the scene on April 7, 2016 in violation of SFPD policy requiring time and distance before using force. He was dead within 30 seconds.
That evening Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition led a protest march through the Mission to the site where SFPD executed Pat, and then to the Mission Police Station where the officers who killed Pat work.
Activists and public officials united to call on California State Attorney General Kamala Harris to conduct a civil rights pattern and practice investigation of SFPD on April 13, 2016.
Public Defender Jeff Adachi, District Attorney George Gascón, Supervisor Malia Cohen, Supervisor David Campos, Supervisor John Avalos, Benjamin Bac Sierra of the Justice4AlexNieto Coalition, Father Richard Smith of the Justice4AmilcarPerezLopez Coalition, Northern California ACLU Senior Counsel Alan Schlosser, and Reverend Christopher Muhammad and Phelicia Jones of the Justice4MarioWoods Coalition call on California Attorney General Kamala Harris to investigate SFPD, April 13, 2016 at San Francisco City Hall, photo by Karen Fleshman
California State Attorney General responded by tweet:
Later in April, a second set of racist and sexist text messages exchanged between SFPD officers became public through an unrelated investigation.
Mayor Lee grew so frustrated with SFPD’s intransigence, he sent all members of the force a letter:
A major turning point was the 17-day hunger strike to demand Mayor Ed Lee fire then SFPD Chief Greg Suhr or resign. Maria Cristina Gutierrez, Ilyich “Equipto” Sato, Sellassie, Edwin Lindo, and Ike Ali Pinkston and their supporters stayed 24 hours a day in front of the Mission Police Station from April 21 to May 9, 2016. On May 2, a thousand protestors joined the Hunger Strikers and marched to City Hall to demand Suhr’s firing, drawing national and international attention.
On May 6, the Frisco 500, supporters of the Hunger Strikers, held a protest at San Francisco City Hall that turned confrontational, resulting in injuries of four journalists and arrests of 33 protestors.
A new group of activists formed: the Do No Harm UCSF Coalition, founded in May 2016 in response to police violence in San Francisco and the hunger strike. Members of the Do No Harm UCSF Coalition are calling for an end to police violence and systemic changes to policing policies and practices in San Francisco and around the world.
The SF Police Officers Association was unbowed. When it became known that SFPD officers followed the “Not On My Watch” policy Mayor Lee commanded them to follow in the letter by reporting that they overheard a sergeant say he had wanted to work at the Bayview Station to shoot “N******,” former SF Police Officers Association President Gary Delagnes denounced the officers as “snitches” in a Facebook rant:
On May 19, 2016, an SFPD sergeant shot and killed Jessica Williams Nelson, a pregnant mother of four, while she was inside a stuck car, in defiance of SFPD’s prohibition on shooting at cars.
Finally, Mayor Lee complied with the community’s demand and asked for Chief Greg Suhr’s resignation, appointing Toney Chaplin as interim Chief while the SF Police Commission searched for his replacement.
Since then, momentum shifted:
In June more than 80% of the San Francisco voters approved revamping the Office of Citizen Complaints to a Department of Police Accountability with expanded authority, a measure introduced by Supervisor Malia Cohen.
On June 22, 2016, the SF Police Commission unanimously passed an updated Use of Force policy requiring deescalation. The SF Police Officers Association began a meet and confer process with the City on the new policy, demanding that they be permitted to shoot at cars and use carotid restraint, although both are nationally recognized as dangerous practices and banned in many jurisdictions.
On July 9, the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury issued a report criticizing the District Attorney’s inefficiency in conducting investigations of SFPD officer involved shootings, which currently take an average of 22 months to complete. The Grand Jury echoed activists’ complaints that “justice delayed is justice denied” and recommended changes to the process.
The Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition organized a two day community celebration of Mario Woods Day on his birthday, July 22, and July 23, the first and only US city to officially establish a day honoring a victim of police brutality.
On July 28, the San Francisco Human Rights Commission attempted to honor police accountability activists as Human Rights Heroes but all the activists rejected their awards.
Over the summer, the Police Commission conducted a search for a new Chief of Police. Interim Chief Chaplin, who initially expressed ambivalence about applying, changed his mind in early August and announced he would apply. Chief Chaplin drew ire from activists because the San Francisco Police Officers Association endorsed him, and he stated that SFPD does not have a culture problem and is not systemically racist. Activists pressed to know the names of the three candidates forwarded to the Mayor by the Police Commission, but the Police Commission refused to part with the past practice of not releasing the names. In the end, 61 candidates applied.
In August, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick drew national attention to SFPD brutality when he began protesting at 49ers games by refusing to stand during the national anthem. "You know there are a lot of issues that need to be addressed within the SFPD. There's blatant racism that's gone on there that hasn't been addressed," Kaepernick said.
On September 24, SFPD demonstrated it can restrain itself, shutting down Civic Center Plaza for 6 hours to negotiate with a white man waving a semiautomatic handgun and threatening to kill officers and himself. The man was eventually brought to a hospital for treatment.
The Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition united with supporters of Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, and Luis Gongora Pat and successfully lobbied the Board of Supervisors to hold a hearing on the Blue Ribbon Panel on SFPD Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement.
The October 4 hearing was the first in quarterly hearings for the SFPD to apprise the Board of Supervisors on progress toward transformation. Among many brilliant testimonies, Judge LaDoris Cordell schooled the Supervisors on SFPD’s decades of resistance to change.
Judge LaDoris Cordell of the Blue Ribbon Panel schools the SF Board of Supervisors on 70 years of SFPD misconduct. October 4, 2016
On October 7, the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition began weekly “Mothers on the March” protests of District Attorney George Gascon at the Hall of Justice, 850 Bryant, demanding he indict SFPD killers of Kenneth Harding, Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods, Luis Demetrio Gongora Pat, and Jessica Nelson Williams.
On October 14, SFPD killed its first victim in the post-Suhr era, Nicholas McWherter, who struggled with mental illness. Unfortunately SFPD Officer Kevin Downs was injured by McWherter.
On October 21, SF Police Officers Association declared impasse in its negotiations with the City on the new Use of Force policy, because it continued to demand to shoot at cars and use carotid restraint.
On October 26, California Highway Patrol chased Notorious Dickerson, a suspect in what they believed was a stolen car, to his San Francisco home, and later shot him. Notorious, a Muslim, recording artist, and beloved community member who worked with young people to change their lives around, was injured and is in San Francisco General Hospital. SFPD ransacked Notorious’ home and arrested his friend, Gregory Elarms, a witness. Charges against Elarms were dropped.
On October 27, youth arts organization Loco Bloco premiered “On the Hill: I Am Alex Nieto”: an original play written and directed by Paul S. Flores at Brava Theater. The moving play depicts the last evening of Nieto’s life and the impact of his death on his parents, community, and young people.
In November, Sergeant Yulanda Williams, President of Officers for Justice, SFPD’s Black officer association, renounced her membership in the SF Police Officers Association, citing its reactionary leadership. Several other members of Officers for Justice joined her.
In December, the seeds planted by activists earlier in the year began to bear fruit in a series of crushing blows to the San Francisco Police Officers Association:
On December 2, 2016, Mario Woods mother Gwen Woods and family were joined by hundreds of community members to commemorate a year since Mario’s execution by SFPD. The event organized by Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community-Justice4MarioWoods began with a march from Martin Luther King Junior park in Bayview to the site of Mario’s execution for a candlelight vigil, inspiring speakers and a santeria ceremony. It culminated in Gwen Woods releasing balloons in Mario’s memory.
On December 5, New York Daily News journalist and activist Shaun King announced a national Injustice Boycott focussed on police accountability in New York City, San Francisco, and the struggle of the water protectors in Standing Rock.
On December 6, the SF Office of Civilian Complaints sustained a complaint against Roger Morse, the SFPD Officer who posted on Facebook about the Nieto family. The Chief of Police must now decide how to discipline Officer Morse.
On December 13, in response to advocacy by the Justice 4 Alex Nieto Coalition and the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition, the Board of Supervisors voted 9-1 to establish a permanent memorial to Alex Nieto in Bernal Hiil Park, where SFPD executed him in 2014.
At the same meeting, the Board of Supervisors appointed Bill Hing, a reform advocate, to the Police Commission, and unanimously adopted a non-binding resolution requiring that the Chief of SFPD reside in San Francisco, tacitly expressing support for an external candidate since Interim Chief Chaplin does not reside in San Francisco.
One week later, Mayor Lee announced he had selected an external candidate to serve as Chief of SFPD, William Scott, currently a Deputy Chief of LAPD, a slap to the San Francisco Police Officers Association. Not only did activists succeed in unseating the former Chief, we succeeded in ensuring that Toney Chaplin, the candidate endorsed by the POA and initially strongly favored by Mayor Lee, was not selected.
The next day, the San Francisco Police Commission slapped the POA again, unanimously adopting a new Use of Force policy banning the use of carotid restraint and shooting at cars despite vociferous opposition by the POA.
The leadership of the San Francisco Police Officers Association is enraged. SFPOA President Martin Halloran who had planned to retire now plans to run again. He sent the following message to all SFPD officers regarding the appointment of Chief Scott:
The POA also sued to prevent implementation of the new Use of Force policy, claiming that the San Francisco Police Commission does not have authority to ban carotid restraint and shooting at cars, although both are banned by other jurisdictions throughout the United States and the Supreme Court of California has held that (The City of San Jose’s decision to restrain when an officer can discharge a firearm) “clearly constitutes a managerial decision which is not properly within the scope of union representation and collective bargaining.” The first hearing is set for Tuesday December 27, 2016 1:30 pm in Superior Court of California Chamber 301.
Also on Tuesday December 27 at 4:00 pm, City workers will be protesting the POA because it is advocating that City pension funds be invested in hedge funds:
As 2016 draws to a close, San Francisco police accountability activists have much to be proud of, and much further work. In 2017 we will continue to press hard for District Attorney George Gascon to indict killer SFPD officers. The advent of a Trump administration and the possible appointment of Jeff Sessions as US Attorney General will mean that all Federal pressure for police accountability will subside. Local oversight will be even more important. Will California Attorney General Xavier Becerra exercise his authority to rein in SFPD, or fall to pressure from the powerful Police Officers Associations statewide as outgoing Attorney General Kamala Harris has? How much of a change agent will Chief Bill Scott prove to be? Will the Mayor and Police Commission fulfill the Mayor’s promise to implement all 272 recommendations of the US DOJ without the US DOJ pressuring them to do so? Will the new Use of Force and Crisis Intervention policies have an impact on SFPD officers actions and accountability? Will the Department of Police Accountability and Police Commission engage more in discipline? Can activists statewide unite to overturn California’s Police Officer Bill of Rights, some of the strongest protection of law enforcement anywhere in the United States?
In the infamous words of Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” In 2017 activists will continue the work of pushing government officials to do their jobs and hold SFPD accountable.
#justice4MarioWoods #justice4Amilcar #justice4AlexNieto #justice4Luis #justice4JessicaNelsonWilliams #Gascondourjob #InjusticeBoycott #Blacklivesmatter #Brownlivesmatter #FireChiefSuhr
Karen Fleshman is a Racial Equity Trainer and Government Accountability Advocate. Her mission is to build and support a community of people committed to love, learning, accountability, and action on race in America. She offers talks and workshops at companies, universities, nonprofits, and government agencies and blogs on Huffington Post and Medium. She is a member of the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition, a co-founder of San Franciscans for Police Accountability and often testifies to the San Francisco Police Commission and Board of Supervisors. www.karenfleshman.com @fleshmankaren