Fixing police discipline

Pub date November 17, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL San Francisco’s new police chief wants more authority to discipline problem officers. He’s been talking about it since the day he arrived, and he’s getting some political traction. Sup. David Chiu has called for a hearing in the next few weeks, and it’s likely that the chief will seek a Charter Amendment next year to redefine how the top cop and Police Commission handle personnel issues.

We have no problem giving the chief the right to fire a bad cop. In fact, if George Gascón wants to quickly rid the force of the small number of violent and unprofessional officers who are responsible for most of the serious discipline problems, more power to him.

But Gascón isn’t stopping there — he wants to reduce the power of the commission and possibly the Office of Citizen Complaints. And that’s a very bad idea.

Police discipline is one of the biggest problems facing the force. The city has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuit settlements in police abuse cases. Rogue cops have beaten, harassed, intimidated, and sometimes killed innocent people. And because so few officers ever face serious penalties, the bad behavior goes on unabated.

Gascón recognizes that. He told us in an interview in October that he thinks there are 10 cops on the force who ought to be fired, right now. That would send a powerful message: in the past 20 years, fewer than five police officers have ever been fired for misconduct.

Right now only the Police Commission can terminate an officer; the most the chief can issue on his own is a 10-day suspension. And there’s a huge backlog of discipline cases. That’s partly the result of the system itself — commissioners are part-time appointees and discipline hearings are time-consuming. It’s also partly the fault of the department — previous chiefs have shown little interest in expediting discipline cases and have worked to thwart the ability of the Office of Citizen Complains to complete investigations.

Gascón told us he’d like to see the commission become an appellate body. The chief would make most discipline decisions, and if an officer thought the ruling was unfair, he or she could take it up with the civilian panel. We understand his frustration with the process, but his proposal doesn’t make sense.

If Gascón is serious about weeding out problem cops (and taking on the politically powerful Police Officers Association to do it), he’d be the first chief in decades to do so. His recent predecessors showed almost no interest in discipline, and even if Gascón turns out to be the toughest chief in history, he won’t be here forever, and his successor might return to the bad old days.

That’s why the current system allows the OCC to take cases directly to the commission if the agency director feels that the chief has failed to act. That ability is central to any civilian oversight process and must remain as part of any reform.

We don’t see why there has to be any conflict here at all. We’re fine with giving the chief the extra authority to fire cops — and leaving the rest of the system intact. Let the chief enact firm discipline — and if he doesn’t, let the OCC and commission do it. That would preserve the checks and balances in the system and allow Gascón to clear up some of the disciplinary backlog and get rid of the worst problem officers.

San Francisco has long operated under the proposition that civilians, not police officers, should conduct investigations of complaints against cops — and should have the final authority on the disposition of those complaints. The supervisors should be open to giving Gascón what he wants — but not if it means dismantling the heart of a civilian-oversight program.

And if Gascón wants the voters to trust him with front-line discipline, let’s see some action. Work with the commission to fire those 10 bad cops — now — and we’ll all have a lot more faith in your reform credentials.