To try a cop

Pub date August 10, 2010
WriterAlex Emslie

Proponents of civilian oversight for the San Francisco Police Department are hopeful that fresh blood on the Police Commission, along with a new set of rules designed to expedite disciplinary hearings, will improve the often-criticized, delay-plagued system of citizens policing cops.

The commission’s backlog of pending cases — which at its worst ballooned to more than 70, with at least one more than nine years old — prompted massive media coverage in 2009; a San Francisco Chronicle editorial calling for the system to be reformed early this year; and former Police Commissioner and District 10 Candidate Theresa Sparks’ recent statements to the Guardian that SFPD’s civilian oversight system is “broken” and that the power to fire police officers should go to the chief.

As it stands now, SFPD Chief George Gascón can handle any case in which punishment will not exceed more than a 10-day suspension, whether initiated from within the department and investigated by the Management Control Division — SFPD’s version of internal affairs — or resulting from complaints made by civilians through the Office of Citizen Complaints. The Police Commission must hold hearings for any case in which more severe discipline is recommended by either office.

“There are litigation delays that occur outside the control of the commission,” OCC Director Joyce Hicks told the Guardian. Appeals to superior courts can indefinitely stall cases before the commission, she said.

The OCC has its own backlog of investigations, which Hicks primarily attributes to budget constraints. San Francisco’s charter dictates that the OCC have one full-time investigator for every 150 SFPD officers. There are 2,317 sworn officers in the SFPD, according to the department’s most recent citywide CompStat report, which means that the OCC should have at least 15.5 investigators. Hicks says she has 14, and that supervising investigators are taking on cases to pick up the slack. OCC’s 2010 second-quarter report states that, due to budget constraints, the office will not be able to meet its full compliment of 17 front-line investigators.

“We do not have an adequate number of investigators for the size of our caseload,” Hicks said. “We are working very hard with the Police Commission to reduce the backlog. But they have to be scheduled by the commission for us to prosecute them.”

Hicks would like to see the number of investigators dictated by the number of complaints the OCC receives instead of the size of the SFPD, as a critical 2007 report by the Controller’s Office suggested.

Police Commissioner Jim Hammer, who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors early this year and has been instrumental in crafting new rules to speed hearings before the commission, said he believes the current system is beginning to work better and will continue to improve with future tweaks.

“I would not be opposed to the chief having more authority to impose discipline as long as a civilian body has the authority to make the final check on it,” he told the Guardian. “This isn’t just about Chief Gascón — this is about the system. Someday there will be another chief.”

A swelled backlog at the commission has real consequences for the city’s available police force and overall budget. Despite numerous attempts, no one in SFPD’s media relations unit, chief’s office, personnel division, or MCD could provide the Guardian with the number of officers taken off active police duty to work a desk while their complaint cases stall before the Police Commission.

Gascón refused to comment directly for this story, stating through SFPD spokesman Sgt. Troy Dangerfield that his thoughts on police discipline were “already out there.” But the chief did tell the Board of Supervisors Budget Committee that the lag in the discipline process was hurting the usable number of officers at his disposal. San Francisco’s charter mandates that the number of full-duty sworn police officers cannot fall below 1,971.

“Two weeks ago, we had an individual who had a case that was pending for nine years,” Gascón told the Budget Committee in June. “I am unable to use him in the field. He will be one of the many who will not be able to do police work as we would expect of someone with a police officer rank.”

And when Budget Committee Chair John Avalos asked if the officer was still on the payroll, Gascón responded: “Absolutely.”

The commission’s Procedural Rules Governing Trial of Disciplinary Cases, which were adopted in April, limit hearings to less than four hours and state several times that requests for delays, called continuances, are generally disfavored. “In the past they’ve turned into trials,” Hammer said. “But these are administrative hearings.”

Angela Chan, a stalwart San Francisco immigrant rights advocate and staff attorney for the Asian Law Caucus and new police commissioner appointed in May, said the commission is prioritizing tackling the backlog. “I know how to manage a docket,” she told the Guardian. “The very first thing I do when I have an initial conference call is set a hearing date.”

But if officers say their attorneys can’t make that date and request a continuance? “My response is to get another attorney,” Chan said. “There is no haggling. As a commission, we have to stay on top of the docket.”

In addition to the rules pushing police commissioners to hold prompt, fair hearings, Hammer and former Police Commissioner David Onek instituted an accountability report for the commission. The commissioners envisioned a monthly report published on the commission’s website — similar to the OCC’s quarterly reports — that outline the total number of disciplinary cases before the commission, the number of cases assigned to each commissioner for evidence intake, and measurements to gauge how well the commission was sticking to the rules adopted in April.

The actual document is a far cry from what the commission envisioned, listing only active cases before the commission, cases filed to date for 2010, and individual commissioner’s number of assigned hearings. It is not available online.

As of July 31, the commission has 44 pending cases, including appeals. Police Commission President Joe Marshall, whose recent reappointment stalled in the Board of Supervisors because of ambiguity about his position on the Secure Communities program, completed no hearings in 2010. He has been assigned eight. Hammer completed six hearings, has an additional three in progress, and has two more scheduled.

Commission Vice President Thomas Mazzucco has held and decided two hearings this year and has three more scheduled. Petra DeJesus completed one hearing, settled two cases, and has two more hearings scheduled. Angela Chan has scheduled four of the five cases she has been assigned. New mayoral Police Commission appointee Carol Kingsley was not included in the latest report because she began her term Aug. 4.

Hammer also wants to refine what is known as the hearing officer process, in which accused officers can elect to have the evidence portion of their case heard by a hearing officer. That officer then reports to the full commission, which makes the final ruling on disciplining the officer. The problem is that getting all parties to agree on a hearing officer takes a lot of time. In addition, final reports to the commission sometimes can take months to generate.

“They’re agreeing to it [using hearing officers] now because it builds in a huge delay,” Hammer said.

Chan wants to convince officers that quickly airing a hearing is just as likely to exonerate them as to create a headache, long suspension, or termination. Hicks, Chan, and Hammer all agreed that the value of civilian oversight of the SFPD outweighed slow, sometimes messy system. “The overwhelming majority of police officers are conscientious, hard-working public servants,” Hammer said. “The overwhelming majority of cops and citizens have a strong interest in making sure the few bad apples are weeded out.”