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San Francisco Police's Toothless Watchdog 

Wednesday, Mar 16 2016
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On a March evening in 2014, Police Chief Greg Suhr stood in a school auditorium in Bernal Heights, facing a large, angry crowd. The hostile citizens were there for a community meeting Suhr called after four of his officers — among them a 25-year-old rookie and the rookie's training sergeant — shot and killed Alex Nieto, a 28-year-old man who grew up in the area, in Bernal Heights Park the week before.

As the crowd hurled insults and invective ­— "I hope you die," one person screamed at the chief — Suhr did his best to explain what he knew of the shooting, straining to be heard over the din. At his sides sat the city's police establishment: stone-faced department brass in uniform, besuited police commissioners, and a slight, middle-aged black woman who could have been mistaken with someone from the angry crowd.

When it was her turn to speak, the woman — Joyce Hicks, the head of San Francisco's Office of Citizen Complaints, the agency tasked with overseeing the city's police force — invited the angry mob to share its concerns.

Any time there's a major incident involving the police in San Francisco — such as Nieto's death, or the Dec. 2, 2015 police-involved shooting death of Bayview native Mario Woods, a 26-year-old ex-con — Hicks or her staff can be found. Their presence is a nod to the public's concern about police misbehavior, a way of mollifying public fears that police wrongdoing will simply be swept under the carpet and forgotten.

Anyone, Hicks said amid the ruckus, could file a complaint of police misconduct with her agency. (It's not clear if anyone did.)

Hicks calls the OCC the "gold standard" of police oversight, but her agency has a far-lower profile than the 2,000-person police department it's charged with overseeing, which is by far the Bay Area's largest police force (and its best-paid).

Many San Franciscans, especially the ones for whom the police are a welcome sight rather than a threat, do not know the OCC exists.

Created in 1983 by a ballot measure, the innocuously named Office of Citizen Complaints is tasked with investigating allegations of police wrongdoing made by any member of the public. An allegation can lead to official discipline, creating (in theory, at least) a way for police to be directly accountable to the public.

Many San Francisco police officers — and especially the Police Officers Association, the city's powerful and outspoken police union — have little love for the agency, which, in their minds, has only one purpose: to go after cops.

But civil libertarians and police abuse activists dismiss the OCC as a toothless watchdog whose only purpose is to calm temporary public outrage, a placebo that pursues minor cases of police wrongdoing while willfully ignoring the more serious scandals.

While they admit the agency's presence has pushed police toward more accountability, they say the OCC has nonetheless never lived up to its potential as a true police watchdog — possibly, because the San Francisco political establishment doesn't want it to.

"[The] OCC, on paper, is a watchdog that has teeth," says John Crew, a former ACLU lawyer and police observer. "You have to actually use that authority."

Insiders tell a different, more alarming story. According to current and former employees of the organization, who tell of leadership issues and systemic flaws, the OCC is toothless by design.

Either way, it may growl and snarl, but the OCC never truly bites the police.

Hicks says the OCC's critics — both the police and the public — either inflate the power that it does have or wrongly see the OCC as an advocacy group. Neither is true, she says.

In any event, San Francisco's longstanding police oversight agency now finds itself in the middle of a new major national debate.

The Black Lives Matter movement and the unrest that began around police brutality in Ferguson, Mo., has brought renewed attention on the SFPD's dealings with minority communities, who are still arrested and incarcerated at disproportionate rates.

And in the past year, the San Francisco Police Department has been rocked by a series of scandals and controversies that have led Mayor Ed Lee and Chief Suhr to welcome a federal Justice Department review. District Attorney George Gascón, Suhr's immediate predecessor as chief, has also created a panel of three retired judges to take a hard look at police brutality and bias.

Following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and many other black men killed by police in other communities, San Francisco police and their allies said again and again that San Francisco — with its liberal veneer — was not Ferguson.

Around that time, the first of several scandals began to crack that facade.

In March 2015, reports that at least 14 current and former San Francisco cops exchanged a series of racist and bigoted text messages — some of which even targeted two fellow officers, both of whom are black — emerged from a federal corruption trial. (Four former officers were found guilty of corruption following illegal raids on suspects in SRO hotels; several are now serving time in federal prison.)

"All niggers must fucking hang," one San Francisco police officer wrote to another. "White power," came the reply.

Suhr took quick action and vowed to fire the worst of the bunch, but so far, he has failed. Late last year, a Superior Court judge ruled that the police department, which first learned of the texts a year before they became public, waited too long to take action, leaving those texters not convicted of corruption still on the force.

But the real reckoning with police misconduct in San Francisco didn't come until last December, when a group of five officers shot and killed Woods on a Bayview street in full view of smartphone cameras and a Muni bus carrying schoolchildren.

For many, Woods' death, shared widely on social media, was a vivid and excruciating illustration of systemic police racism and the wanton overuse of force. (Woods's death was one of six fatal officer-involved shootings in the city in 2015; his family has since filed a federal civil rights lawsuit and a complaint has been filed with the OCC.)


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Jonah Owen Lamb

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