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Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Chief Is In: Is She Accountable?

Posted By on Thu, Aug 7, 2008 at 9:08 AM

By Benjamin Wachs

It’s easy to be a critic of the SFPD, and Ron Russell’s exceptional cover story this week clearly shows why: the problems start at the top.

Like the Mayor who hired her, Chief Heather Fong is exceptionally uncommunicative with the people she most needs to have on her side. The result is a woefully inadequate set of plans (because you can’t get buy-in from the city) combined with woefully inadequate implementation (because you can’t convince the officers who put their lives on the line that you’re not going to move the line out from under them).

Which is why, as Russell’s article noted, San Francisco’s homicide clearance rate is pretty bad. How bad? Not long ago I perused the FBI’s Uniform Crime Statistics. Only 2006 data was available, but it clearly told the story: San Francisco wasn’t the worst performing city of its size, but it was near the worst.

Out of 70 mid-to-large sized city’s examined for their 2006 homicide clearance rates, San Francisco tied for 51st best, putting them in the bottom quartile. Among the 31 cities of over 500,000 examined, San Francisco came in 23rd – the 8th worst. Samples of this data are below.

This is why one of the most quiet discussions on police issues is also one of the most productive. As far as I’m aware, only Sweet Melissa and the Snitch have paid any attention to Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi’s game changing proposal that the Board of Supervisors needs to have supervisory power – and direct hiring oversight – of the SF Police Chief.

Right now the Chief can only be hired or fired by the Mayor or the Mayor-appointed Police Commission – and since the Mayor places no store in working with the Board of Supervisors, the city’s legislative branch has only the clumsiest ability to affect law enforcement policy: Supes can pass laws forcing the police to do what they tell it, or they can sit on the sidelines, but they can’t get anyone in the police department to listen to them.

Recently the city’s Legislative Analyst prepared, at Mirkarimi’s request, an examination of alternative methods of hiring and firing police chiefs – models that take the legislative branch of government into account. While some of the recommendations are sensible, it is, to my mind, a woefully inadequate document that hardly touched on the idea that the legislative branch should be an equal (or even dominant) partner to the city’s executive on law enforcement matters.

But Mirkarimi said it goes far enough.

“OLA (the Office of the Legislative Analyst) wasn’t directed to go that far. They could, but they wouldn’t because then this would be seen by the mayor as a hostile takeover,” he said. “Sometimes when you have an insecure mayor you’re always going find things interpreted in that way, even if it doesn’t speak to the merits of the argument.”

The point, he said, is that as the city conducts its massive review of all-things-police, new methods of hiring and firing the chief are now on the table. “The report is substantial enough that it should be seriously factored into the police effectiveness review process that is ongoing right now,” said Mirkarimi. “I think that there is strong merit (for the Supervisors) to seek a contractual relationship with the police chief instead of abiding by current practice, which gives us no standards of accountability or outcome or performance.”

Making the chief in some way accountable to the Supervisors would change everything about the way police brass responds to the government and the public – whether Fong is chief or not.

As for Fong herself, one other thing Russell’s piece brings to light are the significant virtues she does bring to the office. Maybe she’s not, as Police Officers Association President Gary Delagnes suggests, the right person for a job that carries the responsibility of inspiring the men and women who wear the shield. I can see that case.

But my God: A public official who works long hours, doesn’t seek higher political office, avoids the spotlight even when she’s earned it, is detail-oriented, and so incorruptible that she attends professional conferences on her vacation time?

Do you know how rare that is? We might have the only one in the U.S. today.

That’s somebody we want to exalt, not tear down. Police chief or not, we’d be fools not to use her talents – or make her feel unwelcome in civic life.

2006 Homicide Clearance Data for Large Cities

City# Homicides in 2006# Cleared in 2006Clearance Rate
El Paso131076.92%
Las Vegas15210468.42%
Washington D.C.16910964.50%
Oklahoma City553563.64%
San Jose291862.07%
Los Angeles48027356.88%
San Diego683855.88%
Fort Worth502142%
San Antonio1194840.34%

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Benjamin Wachs


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