Politics trumps police oversight

Pub date May 6, 2014


A proven advocate for the public interest was removed from the San Francisco Police Commission last week. Not only was this a missed opportunity for stronger civilian oversight at a time when the San Francisco Police Department is under federal scrutiny, it raises disturbing implications about how things get done in City Hall.

The Board of Supervisors voted to oust Police Commissioner Angela Chan, voting 7-4 to strike Chan’s name from the appointment and replace it with contender Victor Hwang instead. City Hall insiders privately explained that Chinatown power broker Rose Pak, a friend of Mayor Ed Lee who wields great political influence, pressured supervisors to vote for Hwang specifically because she and her allies wanted Chan to be ousted. Supervisors who could not be relied upon to vote for Hwang were even reportedly cautioned that they shouldn’t be too vocal about their positions.

A civil rights attorney who proved effective and independent as a commissioner, Chan often directed pointed questions at police, for example drilling down on the finer details of officer-involved shootings.

Hwang, also a civil rights attorney, is qualified and respected, but he didn’t need to replace Chan. There’s another vacant seat on the commission — up to Mayor Ed Lee to appoint — so this vote was never about Hwang’s qualifications versus Chan’s. There was room for both.

This was about political patronage, pure and simple. It was about getting rid of an independent voice and replacing her with the former chair of the “Run Ed Run” committee, which urged Lee to break his pledge and run for mayor — a tradeoff that hurts police accountability.

Having two civil rights attorneys on the Police Commission would have sent a strong signal that the city is serious about addressing police misconduct at a time when the SFPD officers are facing federal charges for alleged civil rights violations (see “Crooked cops, March 4).

Supervisors should have called upon Lee to appoint Hwang rather than ousting Chan. Instead, the board majority was unwilling to challenge the consolidated power of Lee and his well-connected allies, who conducted an anti-democratic closed-door lobbying effort.

Board President David Chiu, who is running for Assembly, stated at the meeting that he’d asked Lee about appointing Hwang to the vacant seat, only to be told: “It is not something that will happen.”

So Chiu was unwilling to question the mayor’s bizarre refusal to appoint a candidate that Lee’s own allies were furiously advocating for. Instead of pushing for stronger civilian oversight of police, Chiu and six other supervisors voted to oust a commissioner with a proven track record.

If elected officials are casting votes for personal advancement, or out of fear that they’ll be rendered ineffective as punishment for pissing off the wrong people, then San Franciscans have a big problem: Their local government is beholden to the whims of entrenched power.