Hearing highlights tension between SFPD and the public
Before the third meeting of the Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability and Fairness in Law Enforcement even began, it was easy to see evidence of the strained relationship between the San Francisco Police Department and the community they serve.
“I'm not going to put up with this B.S.," activist Michael Petrelis yelled. "And this meeting should be held at six o’clock, when working people can be here!” Then, he stormed out.
Last year, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón asked an independent panel of judges to take a look at the department after a series of what many called racist, sexist, and homophobic text messages exchanged between officers went public. The panel is now reviewing thousands of documents and holding a series of public hearings to gather testimony from officials and to solicit input from the public on how they view the police. It’s just one step in an effort to restore public trust in the police.
Just two weeks ago, about 50 members of the public, the media and city officials gathered in the basement of the San Francisco Main Library. Up on the stage sat three judges who’d come in from across Northern California. Anand Subramanian, the Executive Director of the panel, started things off.
“We are an independent and autonomous body," Subramanian began. "We are not supervised or directed by [District Attorney] Gascón.”
The judges convened to interview witnesses on stage about whether or not the culture of the San Francisco Police Department is fundamentally racist – and if so, what can be done about it.
The graphic text messages that had provided the impetus for the night's meeting were discovered to have been exchanged between 14 police officers on their personal phones.
Their content might be difficult for some to read. In reference to a Black man coming over for dinner, one officer wrote to another:
“Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots. Its [sic] not against the law to put an animal down.”
Yet to come onto the stand that night were the District Attorney, the Director of City Audits, the President of Police Commission – and Police Chief Greg Suhr.
Chief Suhr's defense the department
“Fire Chief Suhr!” yelled an audience member as he walked on stage.
Others hissed. Some held up signs for the entire hour he occupied the stage, reading: "Jail Killer Cops" and "Stop Police Terror." Many had come from the Justice For Mario Woods Coalition – a group that believes a culture of systemic racism among the SFPD led to the shooting of Mario Woods.
Jerry Roth, a lawyer helping the judges question the police chief, tried to suss out if the department fostered an environment where racism might thrive.
“Is there a problem in the San Francisco Police Department with respect to there being an 'old boys' network?" he asked. "Where there are cliques where some people are on the in[side], and some people who are on the outside?”
The chief answered: “Within every profession there is a culture, and there are always people more in than out, and the police department is no different.”
An audience member yelled that the chief was not answering the question.
Suhr insisted throughout his testimony that the police department has been doing everything in its power to increase diversity in hiring – and to fire the officers who sent the text messages.
“And I have been loud and clear on this,” he said. “There's no place for a dishonest cop or for a racist police officer. And I intend to dispel both as quickly as I can.”
Roadblocks from SFPD
But one judge on the panel, Judge LaDoris Cordell, questioned whether the offending officers would be disciplined at all. The text messages were sent in 2011, the same year that Chief Suhr got his job. The Internal Affairs department found out about the text messages in December of 2012, but the public didn’t learn about them until March of 2015. Judge Cordell said that the department may have sat for too long without taking action.
“Once a police department is aware of, or has notice of alleged misconduct, then the clock starts ticking," she said. "And if an officer is not given notice that he or she will be disciplined within one year, then – no matter how egregious the behavior – the officer cannot be disciplined.”
Judge Cordell also suggested that the SFPD has been purposefully getting in the way of the investigation.
“There has been basically obstruction. Delay. So that's a real concern," she said.
For example, at the last hearing Yulanda Williams, a Black officer with the department who had been specifically targeted in some of the racist text messages, testified that she saw pervasive racism in the department. Later, the president of the city’s police union published a letter to her, stating: “I find your testimony to the Panel to be largely self-centered and grossly unfair to the almost 2200 officers of this department.”
Judge Cruz Reynoso, another of the three judges on the panel, had been reserved for much of the three-hour hearing, but he became fiery when he brought up that letter.
“When I read that I thought, 'They're trying to intimidate people so no one else will come forward, otherwise we're going to get 'em!'”
Some from the crowd shouted out in agreement.
A frustrated public
After more testimony from officials, it was time for the public to speak. People began to line up in the aisle, but there were only 10 minutes left for public comment. Felicia Jones from the Justice For Mario Woods Coalition stepped up: “We want Chief Suhr fired!”
Jones said she is tired of coming to meetings that spend hours talking with city officials and only minutes listening to the public.
“We need a better process to be fair to us," she said. "A community that is hurting, a community that is in pain. And not one seems to understand that.”
This hearing was intended to be one step in the healing of community-police relations. But the very process proved part of the problem to Jones and the Justice For Mario Woods Coalition. They chanted: “Stop the genocide of black and brown people! Stop killing our youth!” Then, they stormed out.
The Coalition gathered in the hallway to debrief with each other. Frank Williams explained that every time they go to hearings like these, the organizers have consistently cut down the time for public comment.
“We have information that we can give to this Blue Ribbon commission that we can tell them from us from being in the community," he said.
Williams added, that in addition to firing Chief Suhr, the Coalition wants to see the officers who killed Woods brought up on murder charges. If they don’t get the chance to voice these demands, he doesn’t have a lot of hope that the department will change.
“They not about to do nothing," he said. "That's the way I got it. It ain't going to change. Nothing is about to happen. That’s what I got from this.”
Anand Subramanian, Executive Director of the panel, stated that he will reach out to the Justice For Mario Woods Coalition to figure out how best to have more public input at the next hearing. The panel plans to produce a report this spring with its findings and policy recommendations.
But even the District Attorney admitted on the stand that altering the culture of a police department could take five or ten years. So if change is coming to the San Francisco Police Department it likely won’t take root this year, or even this decade.
The next hearing for the Blue Ribbon Panel has not been scheduled yet. But on Tuesday, March 8th and Thursday March, 10th, the U.S. Department of Justice will host community listening sessions as part of their investigation into the SFPD. Click here for more info.