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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.)

For the city's black and brown people, the killing illustrated in action the thinking displayed in the text messages. It was proof positive that for black and brown people, police could be as bad in San Francisco as they could in Missouri, Baltimore, or Chicago.

After Woods's death, the reaction came from nearly all quarters.

Shortly before the New Year, Mayor Lee ordered the city's Police Commission to rewrite the department's policies around use of force, which was soon followed by the announcement of a federal Department of Justice review. (Suhr has since drawn criticism for the reaction from the police union, which says political forces are tying cops' hands.)

And over the past month, Justice Department staffers have been making the rounds in the city, giving audiences in the Western Addition, Bayview, and other low-income neighborhoods where mistrust of the police runs deep the opportunity to vent concerns at "listening sessions."

The OCC will no doubt play a role in these efforts to create a police department all San Franciscans can trust (and cooperate with). But after the Justice Department goes back to Washington and the Police Commission is done reforming the rules, the OCC, which answers to the politically appointed Police Commission, will be the only institution still in place with the sole mission of investigating police wrongdoing.

By then, it may even have more responsibility: Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the Bayview, recently floated a plan to have all police shootings investigated by the OCC. (Currently, an investigation only takes place when a citizen makes a complaint.)

But many worry the the city will be left with the same ineffective police watchdog it has had for decades.

"It's a paper tiger," says a highly placed public official with deep knowledge of the OCC, speaking on condition of anonymity. And a main reason why the agency is toothless starts at the top.

Hicks, who was appointed by Mayor Gavin Newsom to head the office in 2007 with the mandate to file reports on time, serves at the pleasure of the Police Commission — a majority of whom are appointed by Mayor Lee. She is, therefore, a political animal, and one more concerned with statistics and timely filing of paperwork rather than systemic changes.

To go after the police, as sacred a cow in San Francisco as there is, would be a real political risk, as Gascón has found out (with stories of a wine-fueled bigoted diatribe of his own trotted out by the police union).

Therefore, there's no "incentive for her to be a real watchdog," the official says.

This raises the question some have been asking for some time, which many more have raised recently: Is the OCC a toothless watchdog? And who is responsible?

For the first few years of her life, Joyce Hicks was one of the only black people around.

The daughter of a Tuskegee Airman, Hicks was born and spent her first years in Alaska, one of the few black people in a true Great White North. Alaska was also a literal Siberia; her father had been sent there by the Air Force as punishment for being outspoken about civil rights.

By her own account, her personal story is perfectly suited for someone leading a police oversight organization in the era of Black Lives Matter.

"I see this period in our nation's history as a time when the door is open to enhance, to truly enhance relationships between the police and the community," Hicks said in a recent interview with SF Weekly.

A short woman with partly graying hair and a direct and officious way of speaking, Hicks is one of the longest-serving heads in the OCC's history. She is known for a stiff demeanor at her weekly appearances at the police commission, only rarely interrupted with a wry smile. At one of her early staff meetings, she told her underlings she would rather be respected than loved.

Much of her worldview comes from her father.

Arthur Norris Hicks, 93, joined the-then Army Air Corps after spying Uncle Sam on a recruitment poster in a Georgia post office during World War II.

To his surprise, he tested himself into the cockpit of a fighter plane as one of the pioneering pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen, America's first black military aviators. At the time, the American armed forces were entirely segregated; both black and Japanese Americans served in separate units under white officers. (One exception was the Navy, where blacks served on the same ships as whites, but were relegated to servitude roles.)

The Tuskegee Airmen never fired a shot in anger at America's enemies. The war ended before Hicks was deployed, and he was honorably discharged without seeing combat. But throughout his time in the armed services, he ran into racism at every turn, Joyce Hicks says. For instance, after the war ended he re-enlisted but was not allowed to return as a commissioned officer.

While Hicks' father never spoke of what had happened to him in the military, his outlook on the world shaped her thinking on fairness and justice. Her father's lifelong sense of resentment, a familiar black bitterness caused by routine Jim Crow racism, motivated Hicks all her life.

It wasn't until President Barack Obama's first inauguration that the elder Hicks opened up to his daughter.

"He said to me, 'I'm so sorry, Joyce. I've just been so bitter. I never thought I would see a black president,'" she recalled.

After Alaska, the family eventually moved to California, where Hicks spent much of her adolescence. Following law school at U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall, her professional career was spent mostly in Oakland, working for the City Attorney's Office.

Her first stint as the head of a police oversight agency came in 2003 as the executive director of the Citizens' Police Review Board under then-Mayor Jerry Brown. There, Hicks improved the police oversight body's performance and hacked away at its backlog, raising enough of a profile for Newsom to bring her across the Bay in 2007.

As head of the OCC, she was tasked with cleaning up what was then deemed an inefficient organization. There was a laundry list of issues, many stemming from a management structure that was neither accountable nor productive.

One of the most critical tasks was clearing a backlog that at times was so clogged many cases had to be dropped because the statute of limitations — one year — had run out.

It was a big task. From its 1983 inception, the OCC has had management issues, numerous reports as well as former employees confirm.

"The OCC has been a dysfunctional place since Day One," says Barbara Attard, an OCC employee from 1983 to 1989, who now works as a police oversight consultant. "I don't think it's ever lived up to what it was set up to do."

From the onset, the OCC was plagued by poor leadership. The first directors were "feckless at best," Attard says. "[Then-Mayor] Dianne Feinstein hired director after director who were very incompetent and unwilling to take a stand for accountability."

The first director was fired because he didn't live in the city. Another was a former National Guard general ill suited for police oversight, she says.

In 1994, the American Civil Liberties Union outlined exactly why many saw the OCC as toothless: 80 percent of sustained complaints — public accusations of police misconduct than an OCC investigation found to have merit — did not result in discipline.

By 2003, voters had had enough. They passed a ballot measure designed to give more power to the OCC and also expanded the size of the Police Commission from five to seven members and gave the Board of Supervisors appointment power over three of the commission's seven seats. (Before, the mayor alone was responsible for staffing the commission.)

For the first time, the OCC had the power to file administrative charges, without cooperation from the chief of police, which can result in discipline and firings. Prior to that, all sustained complaints went to the chief who then decided the fate of each officer.

But soon after those reforms, the OCC was labeled "a dysfunctional agency" in a scathing report issued by the city controller in 2007.

Over a three-year period in the early 2000s, half of the agency's investigations missed deadlines and took longer than nine months to complete, the report found, dangerously close to the one-year statute of limitations.

That report sealed the fate for the OCC's then-director, who resigned.

A nationwide search for a replacement resulted in Newsom — who was eager to react swiftly to police-produced videos he blasted as racist and sexist — appointing Hicks, who drew praise from Police Commission President Theresa Sparks and from the ACLU for her handling of the police oversight board in Oakland.

"We need to re-evaluate how San Francisco should be policed going into the 21st century," Sparks said at the time, according to the Chronicle.

Rather than a mess, Hicks found inspiration. She knew exactly what to fix. "What I found when I got here was a roadmap to improving this office," she says.

By many accounts, she has achieved her goals: Investigations are routinely completed within the mandated nine-month period; reports are given to the Police Commission in a timely manner; and, in general, the internal administrative workings of the agency are efficient.

But that is precisely the problem, say current and former employees and OCC observers. Simply improving the agency's administration will not help it live up to its potential as a real police watchdog.

With 17 full-time investigators and a budget of more than $5 million, the OCC is tasked with investigating all reported allegations of police misconduct — roughly 800 to 1,000 cases per year.

Investigators are supposed to have access to most police files — and officers must fully cooperate with requests for interviews. But the OCC is housed a block north of Market Street on Van Ness Avenue, physically distant from the brand-new police headquarters in Mission Bay.

For the OCC to determine if misconduct has taken place, the burden of truth is the "preponderance of evidence," similar to a civil case. This is a weaker standard than the more stringent criminal burden of "beyond a reasonable doubt."

If an allegation is sustained, the case is sent to the police chief. The chief may call a disciplinary hearing or he may simply impose a punishment of no more than 10 days' suspension.

Any discipline resulting in more serious punishment is sent to the police commission, which holds its own hearing.

That hearing, which the complainant is encouraged to attend, is otherwise closed to the public.

The most serious discipline at the police commission is in-house: Cases originating from an OCC investigation only account for about 30 percent of all disciplinary hearings, said Police Commissioner Joe Marshall. And nearly all of those cases rank as the least-egregious among the department's list of wrongs, such as "failing to treat the public with respect" or "failing to devote your entire work day to police work."

The other 70 percent of those cases are filed by the SFPD's own Internal Affairs unit, which investigates all allegations of on- and off-duty criminal and other misconduct (filed by other police, not by the public).

Still, the OCC is busy: In 2014 alone, the agency received complaints about 507 officers, which account for 24 percent of the police force. Most received only one complaint, but some officers were repeat offenders: Ten officers received four complaints, and one officer received more than five complaints. (Their names are not publicly available.)

Until recently, complainants wouldn't know what happened in their case until a letter announcing a decision arrived in the mail. Now, they are given periodic updates.

The public is given little detail on the activity of the OCC other than periodic statistical reports to the Police Commission. Dates and names are left out.

What these statistics mask, say critics, is how effectively the organization is doing its job.

Current and former employees say the agency does not pursue hard cases, such as use of force or racial bias, for a number of reasons. They say most of the investigators are not trained properly, are deluged in paperwork due to antiquated filing systems, and fear retribution if they do not file reports on time — with the one-year deadline always hovering in the background — even if the reports are incomplete.

Meanwhile, minor cases (in which officers may have incorrectly filed a report) are given as much import as other more serious allegations, like violence or corruption. The result, OCC current and former employees say, is an agency driven more by filing deadlines and statistical goals than by a genuine desire for police oversight — and frustration for OCC investigators who feel stymied from above.

"[The OCC] wasn't created to make sure the officers are filing out the right paperwork correctly," said a current employee, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation.

Much of the responsibility for this culture lies with Hicks, these sources say. "She does a very poor job of pursuing [serious allegations]," said a source with knowledge of Hicks's approach at the OCC.

Serious cases are neither spiked nor dismissed. Rather, there isn't a structure for such cases to follow while going forward. Hicks too often agrees with the chief, sources say, which can be seen in the low number of cases she has brought to the commission over his head.

In response, Hicks contends people don't understand what the OCC does.

"It is not the OCC's goal to go after police. It is the OCC's role to investigate police misconduct and neglect of duty," she says. "We are not advocates."

Supervisor John Avalos says no matter the reasons, the public has lost faith in the OCC's ability to serve as a watchdog. There is a definite big dog in town — and it's the police department.

"That is not to impugn the skills of the OCC staff, but rather to acknowledge that there are major limitations to their power as an agency," Avalos says. "If there was a sense that the OCC had the institutional power relative to the police department, then people would seek out OCC support more often."

Some OCC critics admit the issue is in part how the OCC office is set up and how it wields actual power.

But the central issue is lack of leadership that prevents the OCC's power of police oversight from being exercised.

"She's not the correct leader," says a public official with knowledge of the organization, who contends Hicks is not interested in challenging the police, even when police may need challenging.

Cecily Gray, a deputy public defender in Contra Costa County who worked for the OCC from 2008 to 2009, says Hicks's agency felt like "they'd lost all sense of mission."

"We weren't doing the substantive issue of a watchdog agency," she said. "They were refusing to take on anything substantive."

Instead, says Gray, it was all about statistics, hierarchy, and administrative structure.

Critics point to sustained cases as one of the best measurements of Hicks' leadership style, which prizes administrative achievements such as clearing case backlogs instead of truly going after investigations of wrongdoing.

"She was eager to get files closed so we would file it as inconclusive," Gray says.

Unless an officer confessed to an allegation of wrongdoing, the leadership would give up instead of digging in, she adds.

In one case involving an officer who allegedly kicked a man in the face, the investigation was found to be inconclusive after the officer and his partner disagreed with the victim and a witness. It was the police's word against the public's — and the police watchdog sided with the police.

"If another officer needs to explain why there's face-to-boot contact," the officer is making things up, Gray says.

Another former OCC investigator, who worked at the agency in recent years and spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, described the office as a paper-pushing agency.

"I was there because I wanted the police to be held accountable," said the source. "But what I saw was mostly lacking in that regard."

"Even when there was clear wrongdoing, it was a real uphill battle for the OCC to say that," the source added.

Hicks says these allegations don't jibe with her record. In fact, she says, OCC investigations have resulted in firings. (She could not give details about those cases.)

Many cases are simply "he-said, she-said," which leaves the OCC with little evidence to move forward. Hicks says the claims that she is risk-averse are equally unfounded and noted she has opposed SFPD on several issues, including on whether cops should be allowed to view footage from the body cameras to be issued to police later this year.

"If I were risk-averse, I would not be putting myself out there as much as I am," she says. "Managing risk, that's a job for the City Attorney office. That's not my job."

In recent years, complaints against officers have declined, according to the OCC's own data. This suggests the public may be catching on to the problems listed by the agency's internal critics — and giving up on the OCC.

In the years before Hicks's arrival, serious cases, such as excessive force, accounted for anywhere from 40 percent of all sustained cases in 2005 to 33 percent in 2006, meaning these public-generated complaints of serious police misconduct were found to be valid.

But from 2008 onward, such serious cases declined. In 2009, they only accounted for 18 percent of sustained complaints. The next year it was 12 percent. In 2013, 56 percent of the sustained cases were for neglect of duty, nearly all stemming from failure to report racial data from traffic stops.

Now, as the rate of sustained complaints remains steady at around 7 percent, many of those cases are for minor infractions such as failing to correctly collect traffic stop data.

For instance, in 2014, cases which officers failed to record the race of a subject in a traffic stop accounted for 29 percent of all sustained cases. The year before, it was more than 50 percent of the sustained cases.

But Hicks denies the statistics show a leaning toward less serious cases.

"It's not true that the majority of our cases are for traffic stops," she says. "We have sustained cases that have resulted in terminations."

She said the OCC has also sustained complaints of illegal searches and seizure as well as bungled domestic-violence investigations, among others.

Still, there's no doubt who the big dog is when it comes to keeping tabs on police. It's the chief, who is rarely threatened by the OCC, despite the agency's ability to challenge the city's top cop.

Hicks has only once bypassed the chief and filed a case directly with the Police Commission, even though she has the power to do so.

In the past eight years, 15 cases requiring more severe punishment were sent directly to the police commission. But the chief signed off on all, except for one. In that case — Hicks could not discuss its details — former Chief Heather Fong opposed Hicks' move. It nonetheless resulted in the termination of an officer.

That is the only time in almost a decade Hicks has used her authority to pursue wrongdoing allegations against a cop contrary to the chief's wishes.

And the cases that go to the chief rarely garner harsh punishment.

In 2014, for instance, of the 58 cases where allegations of police misconduct were sustained, only one was brought by the OCC to the Police Commission for punishment of more than 10 days' suspension.

Of the other 57 minor cases, for 42 of the officers, the chief's punishment was "admonishment" and "retraining."

An admonishment will not be reflected in their records, making these "punishments" essentially meaningless, said John Crew, a former SFPD observer with the ACLU.

During that period, 10 officers received written reprimands. None were fired as a result of OCC investigation.

All of this leaves some scratching their heads.

According to Crew, cases that obviously should have gone to the commission did not.

In one case in early 2014, an officer punched a woman in the face after she spat at him. The officer in question was a field training officer, showing a rookie cop the ropes.

"The officer struck the complainant after she spit directly in his face near his eyes," according to a case summary in the OCC's annual report, one of the few public windows into the office's dealings (state public records laws protect most police officer records from disclosure). "The officer claimed he feared he would be spit on again and he considered spit in the face to be a direct threat to his safety as bodily fluids contain potentially dangerous diseases."

The OCC sent the case to the chief, who gave the officer a written reprimand for unnecessary use of force.

For this case, the OCC determined the discipline would not amount to more than a 10-day suspension — but how and why are some cases worthy of more punishment rather than less?

The OCC uses a department disciplinary chart written in 1994 to rank offenses and discipline. It's outdated and needs updating, but it's the department who has the power to do that.

"The department has not amended its discipline process for many years, and that is an area that we recommend be given a closer look," Hicks says.

In some cases, in which there's no clear rule to follow, "[w]e consult with the department" to determine discipline.

Instead of an independent watchdog, in many instances, the OCC is following cops' lead.

In October 2014, former Police Commissioner Jim Salinas was crossing a busy street near his house in the Outer Mission when a passing car nearly struck him. "Slow down, this is a legal crosswalk," Salinas recalls saying. The car backed up and the driver got out. The driver hit Salinas in the face, fleeing after he drew blood. Salinas had a broken nose that required surgery and two black eyes.

Responding police took statements from Salinas and from a witness. When Salinas showed up at the Ingleside Police Station for a lineup of suspects, he identified the man who beat him to an inspector.

But each time Salinas called for an update, he got nowhere. No charges were ever filed, Salinas eventually learned, because the incident was deemed "mutual combat."

Unsatisfied with how such an open-and-shut case could be bungled, Salinas filed a complaint with the OCC, hoping that at least the mess would be documented.

Other than that, he got little satisfaction from the process. He has no idea what became of his complaint.

"To this day I've never gotten a response from the OCC," he says, going before his former colleagues at the police commission in January to testify.

"The OCC doesn't have the resources to do these types of investigations," he told the commission. "We have some problems."

Like Salinas, the public who still use the OCC appear to be losing their faith.

Few of the people who navigate the process come away happy. In a 2014 survey, only 27 percent of complainants reported they were satisfied or very satisfied with the OCC's process. The survey found that 61 percent of respondents agreed strongly that the complaint process is biased in favor of police.

(Not surprisingly, 57 percent of police questioned strongly agree the process is biased in favor of citizens.)

What's more, fewer and fewer San Franciscans are coming to the OCC to file complaints. Since 2010, complaints have declined by 14 percent. (Meanwhile, the complaints to similar police oversight bodies statewide saw a 30 percent decline between 2007 and 2013, according to the OCC.)

Unsatisfied complaints may indicate why so many are unhappy with the OCC and why fewer people are turning to the agency at all.

Another recent case sheds light on one reason why discipline might be lax: the degree to which the Police Department declines to cooperate with OCC investigations.

On June 4, 2014, Sarmad Gilani, a 29-year-old software engineer from Normal, Ill. who moved to San Francisco to work for Google, received some unusual visitors at his downtown office: a San Francisco police officer and an FBI agent.

The two men said they were there to follow up on a Freedom of Information Act request. (Gilani's lawyer with the Council on American-Islamic Relations had filed the FOIA earlier in the year to find out why Gilani had so much trouble whenever he traveled.)

The pair questioned Gilani about his visits to family in Pakistan and whether or not he knew anything about events in Afghanistan. Gilani claims he had done nothing wrong and neither told him why he was under suspicion.

The strange encounter, which appeared to indicate a San Francisco police officer cooperated with federal law enforcement in a manner barred by a 2012 city law, was reported to the OCC. An investigation was launched.

A year after the initial FBI case was made public, there is no result. Gilani's lawyers say the investigation seems to have stalled due to lack of cooperation from the Police Department. Hicks noted that her office has yet to interview the officer in question, raising questions about the OCC's ability to conduct the investigation at all.

Hicks says the city attorney, the police's advocate in court matters, informed her that her agency could not compel the officer to speak with them.

Because of a memorandum of understanding between the FBI and SFPD, as well as federal law, the officer in question cannot be compelled to testify.

Hicks says "we will complete the investigation, but we will not be able to rely on testimony from officers involved."

In recent years, she could cite only two similar cases. One was when the union for non-sworn police service aides — who work as receptionists and perform other menial duties at police stations — balked at the OCC's request for photos of their members, since, they said, the OCC has no mandate to investigate non-police officers.

In the other case, the department refused to hand over documents identifying a confidential informant.

"It's really rare that we are denied documents, and it's rare that officers refuse to cooperate with investigations," Hicks says.

Some observers have said the OCC's main issue is that its investigators are ill-suited to look into police misconduct, not because they are stopped by Hicks or other managers.

In many cases, they say, investigators don't know the right questions to ask police, since few were police. They are also overtaxed by an average of 25 cases per investigator, instead of the 16 recommended by national best practices.

Thus, instead of murky or difficult cases, they go after the cases they can prove, which are often of lesser importance. Even then, much of investigators' time is lost in the "meaningless minutiae" of paperwork, recently retired OCC senior investigator Dennis Maxson says.

"I think we've had a resource issue," he says. "Investigators, especially new ones, are not adequately trained. There isn't really a formal training program."

Instead of fixing this or any other flaw, Hicks' OCC remains hell-bent on processing complaints in time — the same mission outlined in 2007 by the Controller's Report.

"I would say that what it's doing a good job of is fulfilling the reform that was set forth in the controller's audit," Maxson says. "That was Joyce's mission."

What this concentration on statistics does is create a mirage of data-driven statistical effectiveness.

"It gives the appearance of operating efficiently," he says. "It gives the appearance that management is in charge. It gives the appearance that leadership is doing a phenomenal job."

Several former and current employees say Hicks' leadership is troubled in other ways, too. A former investigator said Hicks was a "tyrant" who must have trained at the "Attila the Hun school of business."

Another former employee who fears retaliation if identified said: "You followed her rules or there would be discipline."

The charges of tyrannical leadership, said Hicks, are overblown. While she may have come in strong at first, she has since evolved. But she wondered aloud if complaints about her leadership might have altogether different roots.

"If a woman is firm and doesn't upspeak when she's giving direction, or an African-American person speaks firmly, are they hostile? Are they mean or are they just being direct?" she asks.

Still, the OCC's reputation as toothless remains. The main problem, critics say is structural.

Ultimately, Hicks owes her position to the mayor and his appointees on the commission. Many observers point to this when it comes to the true nature of the OCC.

Former ACLU police watchdog Crew said the problem isn't simply who is in charge of the OCC. Instead, it's a matter of political will. The mayor must be willing and able to challenge the chief.

"If that's not there, the system atrophies," he says.

But absent direction from City Hall, credit for the OCC's failings and successes lies with the Police Commission.

The Police Commission has the power to manage, organize, and or reorganize the OCC. Longtime commissioner Marshall, who has been on the commission during the tenure of three OCC heads, says he thinks the agency is doing its job.

Commission President Suzy Loftus echoes his opinion, but links the OCC's performance to the well-being of the police department.

"I think the health of the police department relies on the OCC doing what it needs to do," she says.

The problem, in politically charged San Francisco — where being friendly with the police can make or break a career — is the OCC may be doing just that.


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Jonah Owen Lamb

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