SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – California will assume the role of watchdog to oversee San Francisco’s police reforms after the Trump administration ended an Obama-era program aimed at helping troubled police departments rebuild trust with citizens.
“Simply because the federal government decided to abandon this, it didn’t mean we were going to let that ball drop,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said during a press conference Monday morning. “We picked up the ball, and we’re going to run with it.”
In October 2016, a division of the U.S. Justice Department issued 272 recommendations urging the city to make changes aimed at improving police transparency and accountability. The recommendations were the result of a nine-month collaborative review of San Francisco Police Department spurred by the December 2015 shooting of Mario Woods and other police shootings.
In September 2017, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS office, would no longer work with cities to recommend and oversee such reform efforts.
In the absence of that oversight, Becerra announced Monday that the California Department of Justice would pick up where the federal government left off and start issuing independent progress reports on the city’s reform efforts.
“I can’t tell you how important it is to have independent eyes overseeing these reforms,” Becerra said. “Accountability, transparency, trust – it gives people the knowledge that an independent review is being done.”
The city has already implemented or started rolling out more than half of the 272 recommended reforms, according to interim San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell.
“This demonstrates our commitment to the reform process and assures it will be an unbiased and transparent process,” Farrell said.
The suggested reforms include a push to document all interactions between police and citizens on the streets to analyze trends that could reveal racial bias. The city has also started collecting data on and investigating all use-of-force incidents. Additionally, San Francisco now audits all electronic devices after two sets of scandals involving police officers that sent racist text messages.
Other recommendations include altering training methods to prioritize the sanctity of life, launching new community engagement units, recruiting more female and minority officers to make the police force more diverse, requiring timely performance evaluations for officers, and closing police shooting investigations more quickly.
Since implementing some of those reforms, the city saw its use-of-force incidents drop 18 percent last year and citizen complaints drop 9 percent, according to Police Chief Bill Scott.
“We know the reform process is bearing positive results,” Scott said.
But not everyone is pleased with all aspects of the reform efforts.
In December 2016, the San Francisco police officers’ union sued the city over a new use-of-force policy that bans chokeholds and shooting at unarmed suspects in vehicles. That new policy came about after officers shot and killed a 29-year-old woman who was fleeing in a stolen car.
On Friday, the city released a video of auto theft suspects running over and injuring a police officer. Other officers quickly surrounded the vehicle with guns trained on the driver, but they did not shoot as the car sped off.
In a statement, the San Francisco Police Officers Association said the policy puts the lives of officers and innocent civilians at risk.
“It is so frustrating to SFPD officers that our use of force policy prohibits us from shooting at a suspect in a vehicle even if that suspect is trying to kill or seriously injure innocent civilians or our officers,” the union said. “That policy must be changed.”
During the press conference Monday, Chief Scott said the city was still negotiating the terms of a memorandum of understanding that covers investigations of officer-involved shootings and other issues with the union.
“We have to go through that process,” Scott said. “What we want is fairness.”
When Sessions terminated the Justice Department’s collaborative police reform work last fall, the COPS office was in the process of issuing its first progress report on San Francisco’s reform efforts.
Under the terms of an agreement signed Monday, the city and California Department of Justice will carve up new timelines for progress reports within the next 30 days.