Elsbernd’s bad police plan

Pub date November 28, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

As if the San Francisco Police Department didn’t have enough trouble with discipline, Sup. Sean Elsbernd has introduced a charter amendment that would allow the police chief to suspend officers for as long as 45 days. That doesn’t sound so bad, but it’s a terrible idea, and the supervisors should kill it.
Let’s start with a dose of reality here: in a lot of jurisdictions police officers don’t get suspended for 45 days. They don’t run amok and wind up with months-long unpaid vacations. They get fired.
That’s not surprising: people with a license to carry a gun and shoot to kill — with the legal right on the basis of their own judgment to take another person’s life — don’t have the right to mess around with the rules.
We’re not talking about tiny, inoffensive infractions here: the stuff that merits a long suspension in this city isn’t minor offenses like rude conduct or bad language. It’s clear, unequivocal abuse of authority, excessive force, brutality, lying to cover up illegal conduct. In many cases the officers who are found guilty of these crimes — and they are crimes — shouldn’t be carrying guns and badges any more.
But it’s damn hard to fire a police officer in San Francisco, so people who have no business on the force cling to their jobs after disciplinary actions that amount to stiff fines.
Right now the chief can suspend a cop for as long as 10 days. That requires no formal action by the civilian Police Commission, no public record, no chance for community input. The idea is that fairly minor offenses should be taken care of quickly and that the head of the department should be empowered to handle them. Beyond 10 days, the case goes to the commission — and it should.
In the wake of the state Supreme Court decision known as Copley, the public has only very limited access to information about police disciplinary cases. In November three members of the Police Commission tried to keep the process as open as possible, and David Campos, Theresa Sparks, and Petra DeJesus deserve thanks for the effort. But with Joe Alioto Veronese — who made a grievous policy error — as the swing vote, the attempt went down, 4–3. So now, most of what cops do to get in trouble and most of what the city does to try to keep them in line will happen behind closed doors.
But at least the commission is a civilian agency, and at least some of the members have demonstrated a commitment to real oversight, and at least there’s a chance that cops who commit heinous offenses will face more than a quiet slap on the wrist and a clandestine pat on the back and a wink and a nod and a message that the rules don’t really apply to San Francisco’s finest.
It’s crazy that policy makers are even having this argument. But if San Francisco is going to continue to allow cops who ought to be back in civvies to stay on the force, an accountable civilian panel ought to be making that decision. SFBG