Tipping point

Pub date June 7, 2011
WriterSarah Phelan


On June 14, members of the Board of Supervisors will vote to appoint a new member of the Police Commission — in the wake of a messy string of alleged police misconduct scandals that, progressives argue, underscore why having strong civilian oversight is critical to ensuring a transparent, accountable police department the public can trust.

The appointment comes less than two months after San Francisco native Greg Suhr was sworn in as chief in the wake of Mayor Gavin Newsom’s decision to appoint former Chief George Gascón as the next district attorney — a move that has served to muddy the D.A. Office’s efforts to investigate the alleged police misconduct.

Further complicating the board’s choice is the heated battle that erupted over the appointment, led in part by members of two Democratic clubs that represent lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities.

The Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club has officially endorsed Julius Turman, a gay attorney and community activist who was a former assistant U.S. attorney and the first African American president of the Alice club. Turman currently works for Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, where he represents companies in actions for wrongful termination, employment discrimination, and unfair competition. He is also state Sen. Mark Leno’s (D-SF) proxy to the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee and serves on the Human Rights Commission.

On the other side, members of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, the voice of the city’s queer left, are supporting David Waggoner, an attorney and community activist who is a former Milk Club president. Waggoner has worked on police use-of-force policy and as a pro bono attorney for the National Lawyers Guild at the Oakland Citizen’s Police Review Board, and been a passionate advocate for the LGBT community, immigrants’ rights, people with disabilities, and the homeless.

The other two applicants for the post are Vanessa Jackson, a staffer at a women’s shelter with experience in counseling ex-offenders; and Phillip Hogan, a former police officer who serves on the board of the Nob Hill Association and has been trying to get on a commission for years.

Although both Jackson and Hogan have diverse experience with law enforcement — Jackson as an African American woman who claims the police have “no respect for people of color” and Hogan as a former police officer of Lebanese-Irish descent who manages real estate — neither has the support of the LGBT community. The position occupied by Deputy District Attorney James Hammer for the last two years, and Human Rights Commission director Theresa Sparks occupied before that, is widely considered to be an LGBT seat.



So now the fight is about whether Turman or Waggoner would be the strongest reformer.

In a recent open letter, former Board Presidents Harry Britt, Aaron Peskin. and Matt Gonzalez expressed support for Waggoner. “While most hardworking police officers perform their jobs admirably, insufficient oversight and poor management systems have led to significant problems,” their letter stated. “Despite these widely reported problems, the Police Commission has failed to adequately address these issues. San Francisco needs real reform, not more of the same. We believe David Waggoner will be that voice at this critical time.”

At the June 2 Rules Committee hearing, Waggoner proposed taking away master keys to single-resident occupancy (SRO) hotels from the police. “Significant abuse of that resulted in seriously tarnishing the department,” he said.

Turman made an equally impassioned — if less stridently reformist-sounding — speech. “Why would we allow an officer to enter a home, regardless of the master key rule, which I’m not a fan of?” Turman asked. He also said Tasers are dangerous weapons with unintended consequences. “I fear communities of color will suffer more from Taser use.”

Waggoner’s supporters noted that their candidate has more than 15 years of police accountability experience. Turman’s supporters vouched for his integrity, maturity, ability to build consensus, and “belief in strategically serving his community.”

In the end, Sups. Sean Elsbernd and Mark Farrell voted for Turman, while Rules Committee Chair Sup. Jane Kim voted for Waggoner.

That means Turman’s name has been forwarded to the full board with a recommendation. But because the Rules Committee interviewed all the candidates, the board can still appoint any of them.

At the Rules Committee, Sup. Scott Wiener voiced support for Turman. And Board President David Chiu recently told the Guardian that he has known Turman for years, has worked with him professionally, and will vote for him. “I found him to be fair, thoughtful, and compassionate,” Chiu said, noting that he believes the role of the commission is “to provide oversight and set policy.”

Sup. David Campos, one of the solid progressive votes on the board and a longtime Milk Club member, believes Waggoner would make an excellent commissioner but is a friend of Turman, and believes he’ll be a strong voice for reform. “Sean [Elsbernd] and Mark [Farrell] could be in for a big surprise if Julius gets appointed,” Campos mused shortly after Elsbernd and Farrell voted for Turman.

Campos recalled how he and Turman started working at the same firm years ago. “So I got to know him well,” he said, adding he is “like a family member.

“By virtue of his involvement with Alice, some folks think Julius will be a certain way,” Campos added. “But I believe he’ll take a progressive point of view on the issues. He has both the knowledge and the experience with the police, he understand the important role that police oversight and the Police Commission play in making the SFPD accountable.”

Kim told us that she primarily voted for Waggoner because she knows him the best, and not out of concern that Turman wouldn’t do a good job. “I’m more familiar with David and that’s what tipped the scale,” Kim said. “It’s great to have two strong LGBT attorneys who have a clear understanding of public safety issues, the law, and are advocates for the community.”

But Debra Walker, who ran against Kim last November, steadfastly supports Waggoner. “Julius has been active in the Alice B. Toklas club for a while, he’s a prosecutor, while David is more of a citizen’s defense attorney,” she said.

Turman continues to be dogged by reports of domestic violence, thanks to a lawsuit that Turman’s former domestic partner Philip Horne filed in March 2006 alleging that Turman came into his house when he was sleeping on New Year’s Day 2006 and tried to strangle him.

Horne claimed he “was terrified that the lack of air supply would cause him to pass out and potentially die at the hands of such a jealous and unmerciful former lover.” He alleged he was able to calm Turman down only to see him get enraged again and punch Horne in the face seven to 10 times. When Horne decided he needed to go to the emergency room, the complaint states, Turman grabbed his phone and keys saying, “If you leave, you’ll never see the cats (alive) again,” and “I will report you to the state bar.”

Horne claimed he ran outside screaming for help and that when SFPD arrived, they arrested Turman for domestic violence and called an ambulance for Horne.

Turman responded in July 2006 to what he described as Horne’s “unverified complaint,” arguing he acted in “self-defense” and that the conduct Horne complained of “constituted mutual combat.” He added that “damages, if any, suffered by Horne were caused in whole or in part by entities or persons other than Turman.”

In the end, no criminal charges were ever filed against Turman and the case was settled out of court. Turman now says “I’ve done nothing wrong and these allegations are false.”

Campos warns people not to jump to conclusions. “We need to remember that there is a presumption of innocence,” Campos said. “Yes, there was a court case, but there was never a conviction. Yes, there was a settlement, but people do that for a lot of reasons.”

Turman told the Rules Committee that the incident was from “an extremely difficult time that is now being used against me as a political sideshow.”

Meanwhile, Campos notes that without a reform-minded mayor, there will be only so much any board-appointed police commissioners can do. “What we really need to implement police reform is a mayor who is willing to do that,” he said. “Otherwise it’s going to be very difficult because the mayor still gets to appoint four commissioners and mayor still gets to control who is in charge of the police department.”



Civil liberties advocates praised as a “first step in the right direction” Suhr’s May 18 decision to issue an order clarifying that SFPD officers assigned to the FBI’s joint terrorism taskforce should adhere to SFPD policies and procedures set by the Police Commission, not FBI guidelines.

But in the coming months, the commission will have to decide whether to push a Portland-style resolution around SFPD involvement with the FBI. The commission also will be dealing with fallout from the other scandals, including the crime lab, the use of force against mentally ill suspects, and videos that allegedly show police conducting warrantless search and seizure raids in single residential occupancy hotels.

These scandals have progressives arguing that it’s critical that the board’s three seats on the commission are occupied by applicants with proven track records of reform.

Waggoner notes that in 2003, voters approved Prop. H., which changed the composition of the commission from five to seven members. Four are appointed by the mayor; three by the board.

Last year, he said, the commission made significant progress in the right direction when it adopted new rules after the Jan. 2 shooting of a man in a wheelchair in SoMa. “That was not the first time an unarmed person with a disability was killed,” he said. “After Prop. H and a crisis, the commission finally took steps. It remains to be seen if Chief Suhr will implement that.”

Waggonner said the current arrangement “creates tension between people who are more willing to defer to the chief on policy issues and being in an advisory capacity, as opposed to people who want to be in the forefront of setting policy.”

That tension played out when Commissioners James Hammer, Angela Chan, and Petra DeJesus tried to find consensus on the Taser controversy last year. “Overall they worked well together. But there’s been no progress yet on Tasers,” he said, noting that the commission eventually decided on a pilot project.

Waggoner said he would be in favor of the commission having a more active role and exerting its authority under the city charter to set policy, but in collaboration with the chief.

The Police Commission’s May 18 joint hearing with the Human Rights Commission about FBI spying concerns was a symbol of the broader issue at the Police Commission. The majority of the commission didn’t see any major problems — but the progressives were highly critical. “Is the commission there to set policy and take leadership, or is it there in an advisory capacity?” Waggoner asked.

With Hammer’s departure, Chan and DeJesus, both board-appointed women of color, are the most progressive members of the commission. Chan hopes Hammer’s replacement believes in strong civilian oversight. “We should never be a rubber stamp for the police department,” he said. “We need to take community concerns very seriously. When the police department is doing great things, we should support them — but if we see something wrong, we should not be afraid to speak out.”

Turman told the Guardian that “being the voice for reform and advising are not mutually exclusive roles — and an effective police commissioner needs to be both.

“I would advocate for series of meetings with representatives from the Arab community, the SFPD, and the FBI to increase communication and understanding of each side’s perspective on exactly what we need to implement in San Francisco,” Turman said.

Asked more about Tasers, Turman said that “one of the things I would be interested in pursuing is a recognition by some that female officers are less likely to incapacitate during an arrest, which could lead to learning for the larger police force.”

But does this means Turman will turn out to be a swing vote for Tasers? Only time — and the board’s June 14 vote — will tell.