Chief Suhr's Resignation is But A First Step: Much Work Remains to be Done to Transform SFPD 6 Months After Mario Woods' Killing

An Open Letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee; the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; US Attorney General Loretta Lynch; CA Attorney General Kamala Harris D;istrict Attorney George Gascón; Joyce Hicks, Executive Director of the SF Office of Civilian Complaints; and Police Commission President Suzy Loftus.
06/07/2016 05:24 pm ET Updated Jun 08, 2017

An Open Letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee; the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; US Attorney General Loretta Lynch; CA Attorney General Kamala Harris D;istrict Attorney George Gascón; Joyce Hicks, Executive Director of the SF Office of Civilian Complaints; and Police Commission President Suzy Loftus

Dear Public Officials,

"The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate." - Gruenter and Whitaker

On December 2nd, 2015, in a scene reminiscent of the Spanish Civil War, the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) killed 26 year old Mario Woods in broad daylight in front of a bus full of children on their way home from school, among many eyewitnesses.

Mario was the 8th person killed by SFPD in 2015, the 20th person killed by the SFPD under Chief Greg Suhr.

It took tremendous community pressure and 2 more lives for you to take the first important step to changing SFPD culture, asking for Chief Suhr's resignation. SFPD opened fire on Luis Gongora Demetrio Pat within 22 seconds of arriving on the scene on April 7, 2016. SFPD shot and killed Jessica Nelson, a 29 year old pregnant woman, inside a stolen car in violation of department policy on May 19, 2016.

Chief Suhr's May 19 resignation was the first and necessary step towards transformational culture change of SFPD. But his resignation is only the beginning. Much remains to be done to rein in the racist rogue violent SFPD and unless you continue to act boldly more San Franciscans will likely lose their lives to SF police brutality.

To be clear, there are many good officers in SFPD. But as the pro bono attorneys who investigated every aspect of SFPD's operations for District Attorney George Gascón's Blue Ribbon Panel found, SFPD lacks accountability, transparency, and needs a top to bottom overhaul to rid it of bigotry and nepotism.

Now is the time to move forward with transforming SFPD culture.

Get A New, Qualified, Experienced Chief

Mayor Ed Lee needs to work with communities most impacted by police brutality to define the criteria for and selection process of a new Chief. Criteria should include extensive experience with:

• building trust with community
• 21st century policing procedures
• holding an entire department accountable

The new Chief must pledge to adopt President Obama's 21st Century Policing Task Force Report and the Blue Ribbon Panel Report when issued and follow all their recommendations.

SFPD is emblematic of the cultural struggle going on across the country. Communities and allies in law enforcement are pressing for police to adopt a "guardian" culture: modern, accountable, community-oriented policing with a primary objective of protecting the community. They are meeting resistance from "old school" police who support a "warrior" culture that pits the police against the community in an ongoing battle that neither side wins.

President Obama's Task Force Report is a blueprint of policing best practices for establishing and maintaining a guardian culture. This is critical for SFPD to restore its legitimacy in the community.

Equally important, the new Chief must work to remedy all the nuts and bolts of SFPD operations identified by the Blue Ribbon Panel pro bono attorneys as problematic: human resources, recruiting, hiring, background checks, discipline, Internal Affairs, etc.

Train SFPD Officers

All SFPD officers need training in community policing, overcoming their racism, de-escalation techniques, and Mental Health First Aid. According to the SF Chronicle, "More than 60 percent of all fatal shootings by San Francisco police since 2010 involved people with mental health problems or who were acting erratically at the time of the incident..... The department responds to an average of 400 calls per month involving such people."

New York City is investing $850 million in mental health, training 25,000 people including first responders in "Mental Health First Aid," a method for deescalating situations with people experiencing a mental health crisis. San Francisco should enact a similar initiative.

Punish Wrongdoing

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch and CA Attorney General Kamala Harris need to end the COPS collaborative review and send either the US or CA Civil Rights Division to conduct a pattern and practice investigation and reorganize SFPD under consent decree. Advocates petitioned both of them for a Civil Rights Division investigation of SFPD. Instead Mayor Lee and Chief Suhr requested the US Department of Justice Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) office conduct a "collaborative review." Community members, including the Justice 4 Mario Woods Coalition, have been opposed to the "collaborative review" from the beginning because it produces recommendations that are unenforceable.

Either US Attorney General Loretta Lynch or CA Attorney General Kamala Harris needs to send her Civil Rights Division to conduct a pattern and practice investigation of SFPD as was done in Ferguson post Michael Brown and Baltimore post Freddie Gray. A pattern and practice investigation culminates in a consent decree overseen by a Federal judge. SFPD would be forced to change.

District Attorney George Gascón needs to indict and convict police officers involved in the Amilcar Perez Lopez, Mario Woods, Luis Gongora, and Jessica Nelson shootings with murder. The officers involved in these shootings must go to jail. Police impunity must come to an end.

The San Francisco Police Commission needs to take a more assertive role in disciplining officers. As a taxpayer and citizen, I find it outrageous that I cannot call 911 and have confidence that the police who respond did not just send a text calling someone a "n-----." It is the responsibility of the San Francisco Police Commission to discipline officers. Under their watch, not one but two scandals have emerged under two separate unrelated investigations revealing racist text messages exchanged between officers while on duty. Lax enforcement by the Police Commission has fostered a culture where bigots are emboldened. The SF Police Commissioners need to step up their enforcement, or the people of San Francisco need to demand that the Police Commissioners step down and be replaced by other San Franciscans who will act decisively to discipline SFPD conduct until all officers get the memo that this type of behavior will no longer be tolerated.

The Office of Civilian Complaints needs to sustain more complaints to the San Francisco Police Commission. The mission of the Office of Citizen Complaints is to promptly, fairly and impartially investigate complaints against San Francisco police officers and make policy recommendations regarding police practices. The challenge is that it is relatively rare for OCC to pursue complaints not resolved by the SFPD to the Police Commission. Doing so would result in more discipline.

Change Policies

The San Francisco Police Commission needs to adopt a new use of force policy and not adopt Tasers.

SFPD's use of force policy was adopted in 1995. According to the SF Chronicle, "Between 2000 and 2015, there have been 95 reported shootings involving San Francisco police officers, including 40 fatal ones, according to police data (officer suicides and accidental discharges were excluded)."
"While no officer-involved shootings have resulted in criminal charges in San Francisco since 2000, police have determined four of those shootings to be in violation of department policy (excluding suicides and accidental discharges). At least two of those involved officers firing a gun at a moving vehicle, a practice discouraged by federal guidelines and restricted by some police departments."

After Mario Woods the SF Police Commission started to review its use of force policy to encourage use of minimal force. The SF Police Officers Association has opposed any change in use of force policy.

Meanwhile, SFPD killed two more people. They opened fire on Luis Gongora within 22 seconds of arriving on the scene and shot Jessica Nelson in a crashed car in violation of department policy.

SF Police Commission needs to get the new use of force policy established, train officers in its use, and hold officers who violate it accountable for their actions.

Mayor Lee, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, and local business improvement districts are calling on the San Francisco Police Commission to adopt the use of Tasers. Community advocates are staunchly opposed to Tasers because they can cause serious injury and even death. We want SFPD to change its culture to deescalate from violence, not acquire another tool of violence. Introducing Tasers at any time would be a mistake, especially at this time when the divide between SFPD and the community is monumental.

Increase Transparency

Stakeholders agree- the Board of Supervisors, the Blue Ribbon Panel, the SF Police Commission, the public- that we need accurate, impartial data to make good decisions. That is currently impossible with SFPD, and the Blue Ribbon Panel found that no entity is providing oversight and auditing SFPD.

Currently Supervisor David Campos is proposing creating a Public Advocate office over the Office of Civilian Complaints. I served in NYC government and am familiar with the function of a Public Advocate. Essentially a Public Advocate is a government official the public can turn to after they have exhausted other channels that have been nonresponsive. I do not think another layer of bureaucracy would be a helpful move to improve SFPD.

Far more helpful would be to create an Office of Inspector General (OIG) of SFPD, modeled on the office in NYC, to continuously audit and analyze SFPD and make recommendations. NYPD OIG was created by the Floyd stop and frisk litigation. The OIG continuously audits NYPD, analyzes and makes recommendations and provides impartial accurate data on NYPD activities to continuously improve policing.

Conclusion

No one of you acting alone can transform SFPD. It will take all of you each doing your part to make the change that is needed. You need to act quickly to protect San Franciscans from SFPD and provide the healing that is needed to build trust with the community.

Please do your jobs. Our lives depend on you.

Sincerely,

Karen Fleshman