San Francisco’s police watchdog could soon investigate all officer-involved shootings
Last month, Jessica Williams, a 29-year-old black woman, was shot and killed by a single bullet fired by a police sergeant in San Francisco’s Bayview District. William’s death reportedly marked the 21st fatal officer involved shooting under former Chief Greg Suhr’s watch.
Just hours later, Mayor Ed Lee called for Suhr’s resignation. Suhr stepped down, and Lee pledged to bring more accountability to San Francisco’s police department through a series of reform measures already in motion.
“To the citizens of San Francisco,” Mayor Ed Lee said in press conference where he delivered the news, “We must push forward, harder than ever, to reform the police department, to restore trust with every community while keeping our city safe.”
Before the announcement, Lee pledged a full $1.8 million dollars to one agency that could hold San Francisco police officers accountable: the Office of Citizen Complaints, also known as the OCC. The OCC has been around for decades, but not everyone knows it exists. And because the OCC can’t investigate officer-involved shootings unless someone files a complaint, the agency has only investigated eight out of 35 officer involved shootings in the past five years.
That might change soon. If Proposition D passes, the OCC would be required to investigate every single officer-involved shooting that results in injury or death. But is the OCC the right tool to hold officers accountable?
How a complaint gets filed
When people want to demand change in the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD), there’s no shortage of ways to do it. For example, you could go on a hunger strike, march through city hall and insist on the resignation of your police chief, like the Frisco Five Hunger strikers did last month.
You could also protest outside the Bayview police station, like activists did after Jessica Williams was shot.
Or you could quietly fill out a form with the Office of Citizen Complaints. That’s something Angela Chan did for the first time seven years ago on behalf of a young boy who had his teeth broken by San Francisco police.
“They falsely accused him of theft, and he was completely innocent of it. When he put his hands in his pockets for a cell phone to call somebody, they threw him down on the ground and broke his teeth,” Chan said.
She went to the Office of Citizen Complaints in downtown San Francisco. Chan is former San Francisco police commissioner and an attorney, but literally anyone who wants to report police misconduct can walk in, fill out a complaint form and hand it in. Then you’ll get an investigator assigned to your case. The investigator will interview you, the police officers involved and any witnesses.
“Then your complaint kind of goes into a black hole,” Chan said. In her own experience, it’s taken somewhere between a month to a year for her to get a letter in the mail from the OCC. The letter reveals what the OCC’s findings are. Either your complaint is sustained, meaning proven to be a valid violation of San Francisco Police Department policy, or it isn’t.
In 2015, roughly nine percent of all complaints investigated by the OCC were sustained. That’s out of about 700 complaints filed every year. Complaints range from reports of rude officers to racial bias allegations to even complaints about officer involved shootings. The OCC can investigate those, too, but only when someone files a complaint.
Of the last 35 officer-involved shootings, only eight were investigated by the Office of Citizen Complaints, according to San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen.
Cohen wants to change that. If her ballot proposal, Proposition D, passes, then the OCC will be required to investigate every officer-involved shooting that results in injury or death, even if no one files a complaint about it.
“So, the spirit of this is to hold officers accountable, so that if officers discharge their weapons and it hits someone, they will be held accountable to an investigation that is not conducted by the district attorney's office, and is not conducted by the police department,” Cohen said.
Critics lament laws of secrecy
No organizations have publicly opposed Prop D, but the OCC has had its share of critics. Only 27 percent of complainants surveyed in 2014 said they were satisfied with the OCC. One of the main reasons is because the OCC isn’t legally allowed under California law to reveal key information, like the names of the officers involved or what happens to them when complaints are sustained. Remember the boy who got his teeth broken by police? His case was sustained. But attorney Angela Chan never found out which officers were involved, or if they got disciplined.
“All you get is [the] allegation, and then result,” Chan explained. “They don't tell you what happened with the officer. They don't tell you what happens next, if the officer is disciplined, if they brought the case to the police commission or the police chief, you have no idea.”
In another case, she filed a complaint after a woman, Dora Mejia, was denied an interpreter and wrongfully arrested. Chan did some sleuthing to find out that the officer only got a written reprimand.
“One of the officers involved in the wrongful arrest of Miss Mahia was in trouble again for wrongfully arresting another individual in the Tenderloin and also for perjuring himself in federal court,” Chan said. “He was reprimanded by the federal court judge.”
Joyce Hicks runs the show
In 2007, an independent audit from the city controller office said the agency was mismanaged, understaffed and slow. So Joyce Hicks, who previously led Oakland’s police oversight agency, took over.
“So we have been able to complete our investigations in time, but, 'in time' is a long time for complainants,” Hicks said.
Critics also say the OCC is too connected to the San Francisco Police Department to truly have an impact. The OCC forwards reports about sustained complaints and recommendations for discipline to the San Francisco Police Department’s own Internal Affairs Division.
“And so the Internal Affairs Division acts almost like an auditor of the OCC's recommendations,” she said.
Then, the Internal Affairs Division recommends to the police chief whether or not to agree with the findings and discipline Hicks suggests.
“If the chief disagrees with me, and after meeting and conferring, I still believe that the case goes to the police commission, I will file the charge myself,” Hicks said.
Hicks has the power to take complaints straight to the police commission, who are responsible for discipline above 10-day suspensions, but it’s been years since she exercised that power. The last time she disagreed with a police chief and brought the officer to the police commission for discipline was years ago.
“I was successful in having that officer terminated,” she said.
Again, California law limits Hick’s ability to name specific officers involved in misconduct allegations. Over the past five years, only eight officers have been investigated for officer involved shootings. During Hick’s tenure, a complaint about an officer-involved shooting has never been sustained.
Even though the OCC hasn’t recently sustained a complaint related to an officer-involved shooting, those investigations have led to policy recommendations. Hicks’ team of investigators don’t just hunt for wrong-doings, they hunt for patterns, too, and make structural recommendations. For example, a few years ago they recommended SFPD develop a policy against firing at most moving vehicles.
“It's inherently dangerous to do so, and the vehicle itself, if it is no longer being operated by someone with all of their senses about them because they've been shot, becomes extremely, extremely dangerous,” Hicks said.
Jessica Williams, the most recent person shot by San Francisco police, was allegedly driving a car when she was shot. Her family hasn’t filed a complaint yet, but they say they plan to. If Proposition D passes, though, no one will have to file a complaint to investigate future officer involved shootings. It’ll be automatic. The investigation will begin, and the questions will start.