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Toothless Wonder 

Why S.F.'s police watchdog agency has never been effective - and why Prop. H won't change that

Wednesday, Nov 12 2003
When it comes to civilian oversight of the police, few cities in the United States enjoy a more stellar reputation than San Francisco. Having just celebrated its 20th anniversary, the Office of Citizen Complaints is among the oldest civilian police watchdog agencies in the nation. In academic and law enforcement circles it is often heralded as a national role model. As an arm of the Police Commission, it possesses -- on paper at least -- an impressive array of powers designed to rein in police abuses, backed by a city charter requirement that the police give it their "full and complete cooperation."

Yet after two decades San Francisco's celebrated system of police accountability is little more than a cruel joke. For years the Police Department has routinely thwarted OCC investigations by dragging its feet in producing even the most routine of documents requested by the agency. It's often impossible for OCC investigators to do their work before one-year statutes of limitation for sustaining misconduct charges against cops expire. Officers are rarely disciplined for refusing to show up for interviews with OCC examiners. Even when the agency refers abuse charges against a cop to the police chief, the accusations are often brushed aside, which, under the police-friendly procedures established after the OCC's creation, is the chief's prerogative. Meanwhile, the Police Commission, the entity entrusted with overseeing the OCC, has a long-standing reputation for turning its back on citizen complaints and sweeping allegations of police misconduct under the rug while providing political cover for the mayor. Only occasionally does the five-member panel -- appointed by mayors who, without exception, have been beholden to the powerful Police Officers Association, the police union -- intervene on behalf of the OCC, whose director also serves at the mayor's pleasure.

Against such a dismal backdrop voters on Nov. 4 approved Proposition H, the ballot measure pushed by a cadre of reform advocates led by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that is aimed ostensibly at breathing new life into the city's moribund police accountability system. The new law is a frontal assault on the do-nothing Police Commission. It rips control of the commission from the mayor by expanding the panel to seven members, allowing the Board of Supervisors to appoint three of them, and giving supervisors the power to veto the mayor's four appointees.

Since mayors have long used the commission as a proxy to choose the city's police chiefs, the success of Prop. H means that the 11 often contentious supervisors, for better or worse, will have unprecedented new authority to shape how the Police Department operates. In addition, the measure gives the OCC new muscle by enabling it to file misconduct charges against accused cops regardless of whether the police chief objects. The provision will take effect as soon as Secretary of State Kevin Shelley certifies the election results, most likely by the end of November or early December. The measure calls for expansion of the Police Commission to commence next April.

Supporters predictably hail H's passage as a watershed for San Francisco police reform. "It means police misconduct will be taken seriously, that the community's concerns are going to be heard, and that there will be a more representative and independent Police Commission to ensure that that happens," says the ACLU's Mark Schlosberg, who managed the Prop. H campaign. He says the measure is "extremely significant, not only for San Francisco, but as a role model for the rest of the country." Not surprisingly, the outcome has sent shock waves through the ranks of the SFPD's 2,300 cops. Chris Cunnie, who heads the Police Officers Association, belittles the measure as a "disaster" that would "put the Board of Supervisors in day-to-day control of the Police Department."

The police union, which has never taken kindly to civilian oversight, marshaled heavy resources in a vain attempt to defeat the measure. It trotted out U.S. Sen. (and former cop-friendly San Francisco Mayor) Dianne Feinstein as the poster girl for the anti-Prop. H effort. Feinstein was the star of a "no on H" cable TV spot, and her photo was splashed across campaign mailers and the police union's Web site. She derided H as a "power grab" by the supervisors at the mayor's expense and called it a "dangerous" impediment to the police chief's ability to run the department unencumbered. The other significant political figure in the POA's corner was the top mayoral vote-getter, Supervisor Gavin Newsom, who was solidly opposed to the measure and went so far as to lend his campaign manager, Eric Jaye, to help direct the police union's efforts.

But despite the respective elation and teeth gnashing at the outcome, there is little to suggest that Prop. H will do much, if anything, to bring genuine accountability to the SFPD. For that to happen will require more than merely tinkering with an inherently weak watchdog agency consigned to playing second fiddle to the cops in matters before the Police Commission. For starters, both the San Francisco District Attorney's Office and the U.S. attorney in San Francisco would need to aggressively prosecute abusive cops for crimes related to excessive force, something that neither office has exhibited a willingness to do. (A 1996 survey by the group Human Rights Watch determined, for example, that not a single SFPD officer had been prosecuted for an on-duty shooting in the previous 20 years.)

Prop. H's supporters count on the emergence of a Police Commission more aggressive in rooting out cop misconduct once the supervisors get a say in the appointments. But that may be little more than wishful thinking. As a whole, the Board of Supervisors has been no more inclined to clamp down on cops for alleged abuses than have the city's last four mayors, including Willie Brown. There was scarcely an outcry from the supervisors' quarters last November when Alex Fagan Sr. was elevated to deputy chief and heir apparent to then-Chief Earl Sanders, or in September when Fagan became chief. This despite Fagan's checkered personal history, which includes well-publicized scrapes with the law in 1990 and 2000 that in most any other city would have almost certainly prevented his rise to the top.

About The Author

Ron Russell


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