Rhetoric and reform at SFPD

Pub date September 1, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL We’re glad to see San Francisco’s new police chief, George Gascon, is talking about reform. He’s talking about opening up the mediaphobic culture at the SFPD, bringing in new blood at the management level, shifting schedules so more experienced cops are available at night (when most crime takes place). He wants to focus the discipline process on the most serious departmental offenders — the handful of officers who are responsible for the majority of the misconduct problems.

Those are, generally, good signs. If he’s serious about changing the moribund, sometimes corrupt, and generally toxic climate in the department, though, he’ll need more than promises. Over the next few months, he needs to take action on a few key fronts.

Send a clear message about discipline. The weakest link in San Francisco’s civilian oversight system has traditionally been the police chief. The Office of Citizen Complaints has its problems, and some valid cases get dismissed, but overall, the agency investigates and recommends disciplinary action in most of the serious abuse cases. But the former chief, Heather Fong, repeatedly declined to impose credible discipline, either dismissing or ignoring the OCC’s findings. One single officer, Jesse Serna, has so far cost the city $580,000 in legal settlements stemming from improper conduct — but he’s still on the force.

Yes, the OCC has a huge backlog, and some of the cases the agency presents may be weak. Gascon has proposed dismissing about 75 cases now before the Police Commission — mostly, he says, minor offenses like failing to file a proper police report. But the cases that have gone before the commission typically aren’t minor — offenses that could result in as much as a 10-day suspension are resolved by the chief. The commission gets cases that are more serious — or that the chief refuses to act on.

Before Gascon starts talking amnesty and clearing minor cases, he needs to demonstrate that he’s going to take a hard line on the serious cases. He claims that "a very small group" in the department has a history that’s "irredeemable." Once he’s helped the commission fire those officers — and sent a clear message that abuse won’t be tolerated — he’ll have the credibility to talk about dismissing less-serious cases.

Don’t be afraid of the POA. There are some good, honest, experienced, qualified officers in the management and command ranks — but there are also people who hold powerful positions because of their union and political connections. And frankly, the Police Officers Association has been a major obstacle to reform. The POA doesn’t run the department, shouldn’t get to chose managers, and needs to be informed by the chief that the needs of the current (sometimes abusive) union leadership are not going to drive department policy.

Take a public stand against secrecy. Under Chief Fong, the San Francisco Police Department seemed terrified of sunshine. The media relations department acted as if releasing any information to the media was a terrifying prospect. Officers and detectives were told to avoid talking to reporters. And the cops — who, for reasons we still don’t understand, have the authority to unilaterally decide who qualifies for a police press pass — use the most narrow interpretation and keep bloggers, small publications, and nontraditional media out of the information loop.

Gascon has done the right thing by bringing in outside help and vowing to expand his definition of news media. But given the stifling climate of secrecy in the department, he needs to do more. Directing his staff to cooperate with the press (through a public general order) would be a big step. Announcing that all police reports (unless they involve a confidential source or situation) will be posted on the Web would go even further.

Chief Gascon has the chance to completely turn around a dysfunctional department. But small steps aren’t going to do it.