Beyond Chief Gascon’s reforms

Pub date August 24, 2010

EDITORIAL You have to give San Francisco Police Chief George Gascón credit: he talks more about reform, and seems to take discipline more seriously, than anyone who has headed the department in at least 30 years. In the wake of the crime lab scandal, he did what the department should have done years ago: ordered a complete investigation of the background of every officer on the force to determine if anyone has skeletons that might affect his or her ability to testify in criminal cases.

But if the list of problem officers becomes nothing more than a closely guarded secret used only when the district attorney fears for the future of a criminal case, the exercise will have only limited value.

The fallout from the crime lab revealed a much deeper problem in San Francisco law enforcement: the police and the district attorney had not been properly informing defense lawyers when cops who were taking the stand for the prosecution had problems in their past. Hundreds of convictions could be overturned by that failure to abide by Brady v. Maryland, which requires prosecutors to turn over to the defense any material in an officer’s record that could relevant to the credibility of the cop as a witness.

Gascón didn’t create the problem, and he has moved expeditiously to come up with a plan to address it. But as Rebecca Bowe reports on page 8, there’s another gigantic issue here. There are cops at every level on the force who ought to be fired for misconduct — and the discipline process has been so slow that it’s utterly ineffective.

There’s plenty of blame to go around — the Police Officers Association balks at anything that could possibly help clear out bad cops. The Police Commission is abysmally slow at holding disciplinary hearings. And the culture of secrecy in the department — enhanced by some really terrible state laws — makes it impossible for the public to find out where the problems really lie.

But if Gascón is serious, he can make some dramatic changes. For starters, he ought to make the disciplinary process as open as possible. He probably can’t release the names of every cop on the Brady list; that would run afoul of state law. But he can certainly tell the public how many names there are and what offenses are included.

He’s been pushing to change the role of the Police Commission in disciplining cops, asking that that ability to fire an officer, now reserved for the commission, be shifted to the chief, leaving the civilian panel in the role of an appellate body. We agree that the chief ought to be able to fire a bad cop — but so should the commission. If Gascón adopts that stance and asks for more personal authority without eliminating the fundamental powers of the commission, he’d have the support of nearly every progressive in town.

The commission needs to change its own practices, too. Serious discipline cases drag on for years because the commissioners don’t put the time into holding hearings. Either the panel should set a weekly schedule for disciplinary hearings, outside of its regular meetings, or hire hearing officers to do that work. The backlog is insane and needs to be cleared up.

The next few months will demonstrate whether the chief is serious about changing the climate of bad behavior in the department. If he steps up, he’ll get immense public support.