Crime

Feds Issue Scathing Critique Of San Francisco Police

| by Nik Bonopartis
A San Francisco police officer on motorcycle patrol.A San Francisco police officer on motorcycle patrol.

The San Francisco Police Department disproportionately stops black drivers, doesn't keep records of its own officer-involved shootings and hasn't taken complaints from the community seriously.

Those are among the findings in a scathing review conducted by the Department of Justice in the wake of several high-profile incidents in which San Francisco officers opened fire on suspects or civilians.

Police in San Francisco have killed six people with firearms so far in 2016 and injured three others, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Between 2000 and 2015, officers in the city shot and killed 40 people and injured 55 others with firearms, the newspaper's review found.

The DOJ's six-month investigation was prompted by the Dec. 2, 2015 fatal shooting of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man. Woods, who was a suspect in a stabbing earlier that day, wouldn't drop a knife despite officers using pepper spray and bean bags, according to the police version of events reported by CNN.

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But the community was outraged by a video recording of the shooting -- some of it shot by middle-school children passing by on a school bus -- and the fact that an autopsy revealed police had shot Woods 20 times, including six times in his back.

The Woods case is just one of dozens of police-involved shootings that have led to increased tensions between police and American communities, but people in San Francisco say it was the shooting that finally spurred authorities to take complaints against the department seriously.

“We found a department with concerning deficiencies in every operational area assessed: use of force; bias; community policing practices; accountability measures; and recruitment, hiring and promotion practices,” the DOJ's Ronald Davis wrote in the report.

Overall, the report recommend 272 specific changes for San Francisco police to implement.

The report “validates that which many people knew, that which many people have experienced," Davis told reporters attending an Oct. 12 press conference, reports SFGate.

"The next great challenge is, can we implement 272 recommendations?" Davis asked. "That is going to require leadership.”

Among the report's findings:

  • The department doesn't adequately track use-of-force complaints and files related to those complaints. Some of the records are kept electronically, but some are paper-only, which the justice department says makes it difficult for supervisors to spot trends.
  • Black drivers were "disproportionately" targeted by officers conducting traffic stops, and both black and Hispanic people were more likely to be physically searched than white civilians.
  • The department doesn't have a formal procedure for investigating complaints against its officers.
  • People in the community believe individual San Francisco police officers are not held accountable for illegal or aggressive behavior.
  • While the department disciplined officers who were involved in a racist and homophobic text messaging scandal, it did not take "action to ensure this was not an institutionalized problem," the report says.

The last point refers to a scandal earlier in 2016, in which Officer Jason Lai, a 16-year veteran of the department, sent texts using slurs for Hispanics, African Americans, natives of India and homeless people.

Department leaders are in the process of hammering out an agreement with DOJ officials on specifics, and SFGate reports there are still some differences that need to be reconciled. Among them: The department has argued that "carotid restraints," also known as blood chokes, are a necessary form of restraint in some circumstances. Police have also argued that, in some cases, they should be permitted to fire on moving vehicles.

Once both sides iron out their agreements, San Francisco police leaders will issue monthly updates to the DOJ outlining progress on implementing the reforms, Police Commission President Suzy Loftus said.

“This is what we asked for,” Loftus said. “We asked for an unflinching, honest assessment of where the department is at, where are their weaknesses, where the gaps are, and we got it. There is a lot of work to do.”

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, SFGate (2), CNN / Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

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