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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Revising SFPD Use of Force Policy Harder and Weirder Than it Sounds

Posted By on Wed, Jan 27, 2016 at 10:59 AM

click to enlarge SFSU protest, 2013. - STEVE RHODES/FLICKR
  • Steve Rhodes/Flickr
  • SFSU protest, 2013.
Last night’s community meeting about the San Francisco Police Department’s use of force policy, held at the Bayview YMCA, featured no arrests, no demonstrations, no “Fire Chief Suhr” chants, and not even any raised voices.

Whether there were any great insights into the future of policing in San Francisco remains to be seen, but just the sight of cops and community members sitting down and talking their problems out for an hour probably qualifies as a small beachhead in itself.

Still, it was an odd affair.

Rather than the standard community forum, where police officials address the masses and then take either comments or abuse (depending on the crowd’s mood ) for the duration, organizers employed an “art gallery style.” Blown-up copies of relevant SFPD memorandum were posted on the walls, and everyone gathered in small groups around whichever page interested them, then engaged in holistic conversations guided by community activists.

Four cops were on hand, partly to answer questions and partly just to listen to whatever was on everyone’s mind. One officer even helped an elderly man look up the Mario Woods shooting video on his phone; he had never seen it before.

Though a lot is made of revising the department’s use of force policy (which hasn’t changed since 1995), actually figuring out the best way to do that is trickier than it sounds, because much of it is already written in painstakingly measured language. Section M, article 1 (Unnecessary Force, Defined) reads, in part: “Unnecessary force occurs when it is apparent that the type or degree of force employed was neither necessary nor appropriate.”

Well, yeah. Pondering the Zen-like simplicity of this, one woman could only respond, “That seems self-explanatory.” Her neighbor immediately interjected: “But what does it mean?”

“When does a cop think he’s in danger?” one man asked, latching onto some of that perilous subjectivity. “Is it danger when someone is holding a knife? Is it danger if someone is yelling? How much is enough?”

SFPD Commander Robert O’Sullivan (formerly captain of Bayview Station) explained that courts employ a “Reasonable Officer test” to decide what a hypothetical, platonic Reasonable cop would have done under the same circumstances. But, of course, the ideal is to never need that court date to begin with. Several people noted that the community’s problem is less about department policy and more about the impression that there won’t be any consequences if it’s broken.

Rather than the text of the law, most of the crowd’s suggestions focused on police culture, with an emphasis on mitigating the impression that cops are an occupying army rather than public servants. Among the messages scribbled on the walls: “Get to know the community.” “Hire young men from the community.” “Get the community involved.” “Don’t carry guns all the time.”

This was the second of three planned community meetings on the department’s use of force policies, the final one being scheduled for 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Boeddeker Clubhouse at 246 Eddy Street. Feedback will be rounded up and presented to the Police Commission at a later date.

On a related noted, at their weekly meeting yesterday, the Board of Supervisors unanimously declared July 22 Mario Woods Remembrance Day. (July 22 was Woods’ birthday.) Later, Supervisor Malia Cohen announced that she’s putting a measure on the June ballot that would require the Office of Citizen Complaints to automatically launch an investigation of any officer-involved shooting wherein someone is injured .

At present, the OCC only investigates when the shooting is fatal, or when someone from the community submits a written request, which means that fewer than 50 percent of officer shootings are independently investigated most years.

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