Shooting at the OCC

Pub date May 23, 2006
WriterG.W. Schulz


When the head of the city’s police union, Gary Delagnes, appeared before the San Francisco Police Commission May 10, he told a story based on his recent lunch with Boston’s former top cop, Kathleen O’Toole.

"We talked about the similarities between San Francisco and Boston and the similar problems that we have," Delagnes recounted. "Commissioner O’Toole said to me, ‘Gary, you have one problem, hopefully, I won’t ever have to worry about, and that’s the OCC.’”

She was referring to San Francisco’s Office of Citizen Complaints, the watchdog agency that accepts and investigates allegations of police misconduct. Delagnes and others in the 2,200-member San Francisco Police Officers Association rarely conceal their disdain for the OCC and have regularly attacked it in the past.

But OCC officials say the cop union will always have it in for them, simply because they’re good at what they do: holding officers accountable for their actions.

No news outlet in town started the year without at least one major story noting the slow pace of homicide investigations and the city’s persistently high murder rate. A series of stories published by the San Francisco Chronicle in February that were critical of the police department’s use of force against civilians led to citywide calls for reform. And a satirical video made by an officer late last year that appeared, at the very least, latently racist and homophobic drew the wrath of the mayor.

Despite the department’s troubles, however, Delagnes seems interested in attacking the OCC for reminding residents that they have the right to report bad police behavior.

In a letter to the commission written May 10, Delagnes claimed the agency had "apparently been soliciting certain members of the community to file complaints against San Francisco police officers." Setting his sights on the OCC’s lead prosecutor, Susan Leff, he fumed that her "outreach" had called into question her ability to conduct an objective analysis of any personnel matter involving San Francisco police officers."

"We find such behavior on the part of the attorney responsible for prosecuting police officers in this city reprehensible if not downright scandalous," Delagnes wrote.

Attached to the letter was an e-mail from Leff that Delagnes claimed proves his charges. The message, sent out late last September, was a response from Leff to a community member inquiring about what could be done to address an unidentified incident involving alleged infractions by a group of officers.

"I am very concerned about taking a complaint as soon as possible, so that the witness’ memories of what they saw do not begin to fade," Leff wrote in the e-mail. "You or anyone else could file an anonymous complaint so we could start investigating."

There doesn’t appear to be anything illegal about this, and OCC Director Kevin Allen argued as much in a letter to the commission the very next day. But the POA has never liked anonymous complaints, and in his letter, Delagnes demanded that Leff be placed on leave until the city attorney and police commission conduct a full investigation.

"I don’t think there’s going to be an investigation," Allen later told the Guardian. "I don’t think the city attorney works for Mr. Delagnes." Asked whether Leff would be placed on leave, Allen responded, "Please. This agency supports Susan Leff, and she will continue as our litigator."

Allen stated in his response letter to the commission that Leff’s effectiveness at doing what the OCC was formed to do had made her a target "for those POA members who believe that no officer no matter how egregious his or her misconduct should be disciplined."

"The POA has long engaged in these thug-like tactics to undermine and intimidate the OCC," Allen’s letter reads. "I have personally been subject to their attacks, as have members of the Police Commission. I will not tolerate these attacks on OCC employees."

The commission essentially agreed, because a week later it appeared to reject the complaint and chided the POA for leveling a personal charge at Leff and the OCC in the first place. The City Attorney’s Office told us that so far, no city officials have requested an investigation.

With police officers experiencing so much uncomfortable scrutiny right now, the timing of Delagnes’s letter looks terribly convenient.

Partly as a response to the Chronicle stories and a resulting vow to "run roughshod" over the department made by Mayor Newsom, the police department recently began drafting a new Early Intervention System designed to identify disturbing patterns of police misconduct among problem officers. Early last month, the OCC noted "several glaring weaknesses" in the department’s current EIS draft.

Publicly, the POA insists the group is not opposed to the idea of civilian oversight. But comparing San Francisco’s cop-watch agency to other such offices around the country, POA spokesman Steve Johnson told us in a phone interview, "I know no other agency that has as much power as they do."

"There’s a real problem with the process itself," he complained.

Further, just as Delagnes submitted his letter to the commission, the POA was buoyed by a San Francisco judge’s ruling, handed down in early May, in a lawsuit filed by four police officers against the OCC. The OCC had charged the four officers with wrongdoing after a suspect was shot and killed during a May 2004 car chase. The court tossed the charges against the officers, citing an administrative mistake on the part of the OCC. But the judge made clear that the OCC could still file new charges against the four cops.

In the wake of the decision, Johnson told us that the POA was looking to discuss changes to OCC procedure during an upcoming law enforcement summit organized by former police chief Tony Ribera and former mayor Frank Jordan scheduled to be held at the University of San Francisco.

Formed as the result of a ballot measure passed by voters in 1983, the OCC is one of the few citizen-review entities in the United States with the power to subpoena officers. But otherwise, it simply investigates complaints and determines whether to sustain them. Only the chief of police and the police commission can file actual charges or exact disciplinary measures against officers.

Anonymous complaints, which the POA has long decried, cannot be sustained without additional evidence. And under the state’s Peace Officers Bill of Rights, details of complaints and investigations are not publicly accessible unless they make it all the way to the police commission. Between January and September of last year, 55 cases were sustained, but the OCC has hundreds of pending cases.

Up to three years before the Chron stories, the Northern California Chapter of the ACLU, the City Controller’s Office, the Guardian, and the OCC had called on the police department to implement new best practices policies instituted in other cities. But the department reacted slowly, at least until victims of police brutality began appearing in broad snapshots across the pages of the city’s largest daily newspaper for several days in a row.

OCC director Allen maintains that Delagnes and the POA were too eager to protest the agency.

"It concerns me that the POA didn’t act in a diligent manner to find all the facts," he told us. "They acted a little impulsively." SFBG