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Sunday, December 10, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

DOJ Finds Bias & Lack of Accountability at SFPD

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The U.S. Department of Justice on Wednesday released 272 recommendations aimed at reversing the trend of police disproportionately using deadly force against black residents, a lack of accountability for officers, and insufficient data collection within the San Francisco Police Department.

The report comes more than nine months after the city invited the Justice Department to conduct a collaborative review of the department's policies and practices in the wake of the police shooting death of 26-year-old Mario Woods on Dec. 2, 2015.

Responding to the 432-page report, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee vowed to immediately implement the recommendations during a press conference at the city's Federal Building on Wednesday.

"The Department of Justice has provided us a road map, a blueprint, which we promise to honor," Lee said. "This is just the beginning."

The report issued 92 findings in five distinct areas - use of force, bias, community policing, accountability and personnel.

During a three-year period from May 2013 to May 2016, nine out of 11 people killed by police were persons of color, according to the report.

The review also echoed the same findings as other recent reviews of the department, including the San Francisco District Attorney's Blue Ribbon Panel Report and a civil grand jury report issued earlier this year.

Those reports cited a failure to close police shooting investigations in a timely manner and found black and Latino people were more likely to be stopped and searched by police, even though those searches were less likely to produce any illegal drugs or weapons.

Ronald Davis, director of the Justice Department's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, which conducted the review, called the discriminatory searches an ineffective use of resources that further erodes the sense of trust between the police and communities of color.

Another recommendation calls for the department to collect data in a more consistent manner, which would allow the Justice Department to more thoroughly analyze use-of-force incidents and complaints to find trends that could reveal bias and other issues.

The review also criticized the department for failing to audit its electronic communications after two scandals involving police officers exchanging racist text messages emerged in 2015 and 2016.

Acting Police Chief Toney Chaplin said an audit of the department's electronic communications is now underway and that the results would be made public.

Another finding focused on the department's failure to adequately investigate use-of-force incidents. Davis said investigations into such incidents should not be limited to criminal inquires where the only question is, "Was it legal?"

"The goal must be not to just reduce excessive force," Davis said. "The goal is to reduce all use of force to make sure lessons are learned from the shootings. Not just 'Could you,' but 'Should you?'"

Although the department has implemented some new training and use-of-force policies since the Mario Woods shooting last December, the report found the agency still lacks comprehensive formal training specifically related to the use of force.

Davis commended the department for having trained 30 percent of its officers in crisis intervention, a program aimed at de-escalating volatile situations with individuals who may be suffering from mental illness.

Additionally, the report found room for improving the department's community policing practices by finding ways to measure the success of specific programs.

When it comes to hiring, the Justice Department found the SFPD has a more diverse pool of officers than most departments across the nation. However, the report also found that female and minority recruits were terminated at a higher rate during training than white male recruits. Additionally, the department has far less diversity in its supervisory and leadership roles.

Turning to officer accountability, the Justice Department found the SFPD needs more transparency in how it reviews complaints against officers and handles discipline. The report further recommends requiring supervisors to provide timely performance evaluations for officers.

At the end of Wednesday's press conference, Dr. Amos Brown of the NAACP's San Francisco chapter told city and federal officials it would be difficult for law enforcement to rebuild trust with the black community when no murder charges have been filed against officers who shot and killed black citizens like Mario Woods in recent years.

"The wheels of justice have not begun to move, and when the wheels are not moving, people will make all kinds of assumptions about what's not being done," Brown said.

Davis said it will take leadership for the city to implement the 272 recommendations to improve the police department over the next several months. That leadership must come the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Police Commission and SFPD management, he added.

"The truth hurts, and selective ignorance is fatal," Davis said. "To put your head in the sand and pretend nothing is going on would be fatal."

Noble Wray, of the Justice Department's COPS office, said his office plans to hold a community listening session to get feedback on the report. He added that the COPS office will also issue two reports on the city's progress in implementing the recommendations over the next six to 15 months.

The full, 432-page report will be available for the public to view online for the next 30 days.

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