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SFPD's shadow disciplinary system wastes taxpayer money 

Wednesday, Jun 17 2009

Behind a vast, thick glass window flanked by locked doors, a dozen vacant-faced figures mill around so slowly that it seems as if the stolid boredom of life in this room has slowed the passage of time.

Standing near the window is a tall fellow who's been here a few months, but hasn't told the others what he's in for. Meanwhile, a barrel-chested man has been in more than a year despite doing everything he can to get out. But he's losing hope. Like many people stuck in the records room, the operations center, the planning division, and other similar facilities here at San Francisco's Hall of Justice, he says he's innocent, and that the system has merely given him a raw deal.

"People in there have languished for years waiting. I have people waiting two, three, four years, before things were adjudicated," said Mike Evanson, who himself has been — to use the inside law-enforcement term — "put on ice" here. "There's a guy who was let out only after seven years."

Though this veritable holding facility shares the same street address as the San Francisco County Jail, these people aren't incarcerated in the normal sense of the word. They're San Francisco police officers who have been put in what are called "nonpublic contact positions," filing reports, monitoring video-display terminals, and otherwise performing clerical or other nonpatrol jobs pending disciplinary hearings before the Police Commission. Though humiliating and suffocating, being put on ice isn't technically a form of punishment under department rules. So there seem to be no explicit guidelines for who gets put here.

Some claim they've been sent to this informal purgatory simply because they ran afoul of a superior, but have no disciplinary charges against them. Others, such as Sergeant Evanson, were embroiled in the 2005 Videogate scandal, where several officers at the Bayview station produced a bawdy video that Chief Heather Fong deemed offensive to minorities, gays, and homeless people. Many officers aren't here for discipline reasons. Some were sent to nonpatrol positions after being injured. Still others have become tired of police work, and managed to wiggle themselves into $100,000 per year.

This veritable padded cell for inactive police costs the city tens of millions of dollars per year — a fact that's no secret. These jobs could be filled by clerks making half the salary of a typical SFPD officer. So-called "civilianization" of these sorts of positions was the subject of ballot initiatives in 1994 and 2004. City audits in 1998 and 2004 described the department's policy of turning cops into clerks as a waste of money. And insiders say this informal punishment system is questionable as a management tool, because it devastates morale and prevents cops from fighting crime.

Today, two separate sections of the City Charter demand that these cop clerk positions be scrutinized every year, and that the practice be curbed. But it's not. The Police Commission has during recent years ignored the section of the charter that says it "shall initiate an annual review to civilianize as many positions as possible." The most recent civilianization report I could find submitted by the commission to the Board of Supervisors was dated 1998. "We don't have the resources," says Police Commission president Theresa Sparks.

In lieu of the independent Police Commission "civilianization" study required by the charter, the Police Department, in conjunction with the city controller, has issued estimates of how many tasks might be performed by nonpolice officers. The department and the controller also estimate how much it would cost to hire civilian clerks, so that officers might be able to go back onto the street.

The 2007-2008 budget added 12 new nonpolice posts, with a total initiative cost of $1.4 million. The 2008-2009 budget was supposed to pay for 19 new civilian positions so as to move deskbound officers to the street. But many of them were cut.

This year, in an example of the sort of absurd logical twist that could emanate only from a dysfunctional bureaucracy, the mayor's 2009-2010 budget proposal says, in essence, that the city doesn't have enough money to stop overpaying police officers millions of dollars for clerical work. (More precisely, the budget does not provide funding for additional civilianization.)

Such backward thinking comes from a system that allows police brass — who need somewhere to put exiled officers — to oversee civilianization of the department. Why should police managers eliminate a system that suits their needs?

A 2008 consultant's study showed San Francisco to have nine cops for every civilian police department employee, whereas in similar-sized cities such as San Diego and Seattle, the ratio is 2.5 to one. The difference isn't less paperwork in San Francisco. It's that we have more than 200 cops pushing paper. Some of these cops could be put on the street without the need for replacement clerks, because they're wasting time as it is.

Some consider themselves subject to an arbitrary system of discipline, where clerical work is a form of punishment, and are in no mood to become the secretarial version of Starsky and Hutch.

"We're like high-paid copy center people," said Andrew Cohen, famous as the star of the Videogate scandal. Cohen has been on ice ever since, performing the redundant job of printing out police reports and hand-delivering them to other clerks so data can be retyped into other police department computers. Cohen says he takes an entire day performing tasks that would be done with a 15-minute e-mail anyplace else.

"I get paid to do nothing," he said. "Why am I complaining? I'm not in harm's way. I don't deal with needles and bullets. It ain't that bad. But I hate it."

The fallout from Videogate exemplifies the Police Department's shadow discipline system. After thousands of hours of internal investigations and 50 hours of attention by the Police Commission, all the city has to show for itself is a still-pending $20 million lawsuit, still-delayed commission hearings, and seven officers who are still on ice as clerks earning combined annual salaries of more than $850,000 plus benefits.

I'll set aside the question of whether it's wise for police to produce inside-joke "morale" videos many saw as racially and sexually offensive. (Hint: It's stupid.) And I'll put off the question of whether a mayor and a police chief should handle an issue of police prudence, taste, and sensitivity with a media campaign and vast internal affairs investigation worthy of New York's 1971 Serpico hearings. (They made a medium-sized problem much bigger.)

And, notwithstanding Videogate, it's true that there are plenty of other cases where officers should be taken off the street. The public doesn't want hothead or racist beat cops, after all.

I'll focus instead on whether we want cops to be subject to an ad hoc shadow system of internal discipline that squanders millions of tax dollars each year. Many exiled cops would better serve the public by patrolling, rather than wasting away at desk jobs. Yet there's no system in place, other than management's say-so, to determine that officers' offenses are sufficient to make them a danger to the public. So the system becomes open to charges that it's a tool for retaliation by supervisors.

There has apparently been no systematic analysis of whether the Videogate cops would actually endanger the public if they were put back on the streets. For their own part, the officers believe their desk jobs are punishment for embarrassing the chief and suing the department.

I asked outgoing Chief Fong last week whether she could explain her decision to keep these officers for four years in clerical positions.

It's a question whose importance goes beyond Videogate. The Police Commission has a backlog of 70 cases, some of which go back many years. The police Office of Citizen Complaints investigates 1,000 allegations per year. With such a huge backlog, high cop salaries, and pressing need for cops on the beat, there should be an explicit protocol for determining which officers are street-safe, so some might be sent back on patrol while awaiting the results of their disciplinary cases. "This is a human resources issue, and we must respect confidentiality," Fong said, regarding the exiled Videogate cops.

Are there specific guidelines or procedures for determining whether an officer should be kept away from the public and in a clerical position? "Every situation is different, and we have to evaluate it given the facts," she said. "We handle every situation individually according to protocol."

What is the protocol? "We assess every situation on a case-by-case basis."

I spoke with Fong at a Police Commission meeting last week, where Sparks had just announced she was forwarding to the mayor the names of three candidates to replace the current chief.

Let's hope the new boss has the guts to end the wasteful, arbitrary system of keeping wayward cops on ice.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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