San Francisco is touted by conservative detractors and liberal boosters alike as the nation’s most progressive city. This is still true in many ways even amidst towering symbols of gentrification.
But, in particular, when it comes to holding police accountable for use of excessive force against communities of color, the City by the Bay is no different from the New York’s, Chicago’s, Baltimore’s or Ferguson’s of this country where cops literally get away with murder.
Think this is an exaggeration? Read on.
The very well-respected ACLU has just written to the Department of Justice (DOJ) calling for an investigation of the SFPD for “ingrained problems” that includes “excessive use of deadly force against young men of color,” and that includes “ample evidence of the persistent presence of racial bias.”
The letter to the DOJ is meticulously documented and detailed. It cites, for example, Joyce Hicks, Director of the SF Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), who publicly admitted that not one of the 250 racial bias complaints received by her office have been sustained.
In another example where SFPD racial bias was alleged, the ACLU provided documentation that “in 2013, black adults in San Francisco were 6% of the population, yet 40% of the people arrested, 44% of people jailed and 40% of people convicted.”
These numbers are truly staggering.
That’s why, anti-police brutality activists tell me, excessive force and racial bias by San Francisco police is no different than what other communities around the country are experiencing where their issues are ignored, dismissed or swept under the rug.
DOJ Comes to San Francisco
On Feb. 24, the Department of Justice (DOJ) came to the largely Black SF neighborhood of Bayview to hold the first in a series of “listening sessions” as part of their “review” of the city’s “police department polices, including, among other things, training, hiring and use of force” according to Noble Wray, chief of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), the police policies assessment team of the DOJ.
But DOJ calls for more dialogue, more review, and more conversations didn’t much satisfy the audience suffering under a lingering crisis of police brutality.
“Ferguson is here,” the first community speaker impatiently asserted to wild applause from the audience of around 75 that attended the “listening session.”
Another speaker requested as politely as he could that the two African-American representatives on the five-person DOJ panel put “a hoodie on and walk around 3rd and Palou.”
See how many times you get stopped, he said, how many times you get searched and how many times you get leering looks from cops when, in fact, you are doing absolutely nothing to arouse suspicion “other than being Black or Latino.”
Again, this aroused the audience to cheers and shouts of “Yeah! Yeah! Do it Brothers! Walk with us!”
I looked for signs of discomfort on the faces of the five DOJ emissaries but they were experienced and maintained a very calm “no comment, no reaction” demeanor. All very accommodating and friendly to be sure and also, at the same time, appearing genuinely interested in listening.
Clearly, we were dealing with top-drawer professionals from Washington.
So, while none of DOJ reps showed any emotions from the stage, the testimony from the floor was at times very emotional. Mothers and relatives of police murder victims shared their heartfelt stories of how “those same bullets that rip open our children’s bodies also tear apart our families” and, yet, in agony, we wait and wait for the hands of justice.
But, it wasn’t until another speaker slowly read off the shockingly wretched misconduct record of SFPD Chief Greg Suhr that I thought actual beads of sweat might appear on the faces of our stoic DOJ hosts.
A journalist writing last year in the Marina Times had already colorfully described Suhr’s record this way:
“You’d think the chief would have better things to do than intimidate city employees, especially since his own department is such a train wreck. His predecessor, District Attorney Gascón, believes it’s so bad that he recently formed a task force to dig into allegations of corruption, misconduct, homophobia, and racism throughout the city’s law enforcement structure, and there’s plenty to keep them busy.”
The writer alluded to one notorious episode in 2009 when “then-Deputy Chief Suhr received a call from a female friend who said her boyfriend was beating and strangling her. The woman’s collarbone was broken, yet Suhr didn’t arrest the suspect” and delayed filing a report in violation of California law. The suspect was later charged with attempted murder.
SFPD internal affairs attorney Kelly O’Haire prosecuted the case before the Police Commission and Suhr was demoted.
But, it did not end there.
O’Haire later testified in a lawsuit against Suhr and the city, that Suhr’s politically connected attorneys repeatedly threatened her, even calling to say her actions against Suhr were “going to be a future employment problem,” and that she was “going to be sorry.”
Indeed, the former SFPD attorney was, in fact, fired in 2011, two weeks after Suhr was appointed chief by Mayor Lee. In 2015, just before jury selection, the city settled O’Haire’s case for $725,000.
After hearing these and other compelling stories of Suhr’s misconduct, it seemed to me that the DOJ reps appeared to be paying particularly close attention, as if they were hearing these things for the first time.
Hopefully, they were beginning to appreciate the passionately delivered remarks from the majority of speakers that “we do not need listening sessions, we do not need more data collection and we damn well do not need any more reviews.”
What we do need, as was stated often from the floor, is a full-blown DOJ Civil Rights investigation of the SFPD’s consistent “pattern and practice” of discrimination, corruption and excessive force.
Attorney John Crew, retired ACLU police practices specialist who also spoke at the meeting, agreed. “2015 was without a doubt the most scandal-ridden year for the SFPD in my memory,” he told me, “and I have been following the police in this city for decades.”
He is not alone.
San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón was recently quoted in local media as saying “in my 30 years plus in law enforcement, I have seen a good deal of misconduct by police officers. But the level of the problems and the frequency of the problems that we’re facing here today are very unusual,”
“And it’s not just a few incidents,” attorney Crew added during our conversation, “it is many incidents, just as we heard tonight.”
Yet, he continued, all you from the mayor and chief of police and now even the DOJ is only more talk about “more training and better policies.” This is all well and good but largely ineffective, Crew concluded, because the police chief and mayor do not hold officers accountable for the travesties that have already occurred and they will, therefore, inevitably recur.
“This is all talk and no action from the DOJ this evening and the community, for all the right reasons, wants action,” Crew stated to me with conviction.
Recent Police Shootings
Echoing that point, several speakers listed a few examples of what they dramatically described as police “assassinations and firing-squad executions” where no one has been held accountable, not one person.
Kenneth Harding, 19, shot five times in the back in 2011 as he was running away from police seeking to detain him because he failed to pay the $2 trolley fare. Stretching credulity to its limit, newly appointed police chief Suhr claimed the African-American youth somehow shot himself in the back as he was running away. Despite a vigorous police search for the gun that Kenneth allegedly used to shoot himself, none was ever recovered.
Alex Nieto, 28, fired upon 48 times by police in 2014 on his way to work after eating lunch in his neighborhood park. An autopsy and forensics report confirmed the barrage of police bullets continued after Alex was down. Though police say Alex was aggressive and pointed his security guard licensed Taser, a witness testified in the family’s civil-suit deposition that Alex had his hands in his pockets at the time he was shot. What did this Buddhist, community peace-maker and college student do to deserve this, his family asks?
Amilcar Perez-Lopez, 20, shot six times in 2015 with four of the shots in his back, after being accused of lunging forward at officers with a knife. The two undercover officers involved had previously been involved in a lawsuit charging police brutality.
Finally, Mario Woods, 26, an African American who suffered 21 gunshot wounds in 2015 with 16 of them according to the autopsy “back to front.”
This is the case that has finally triggered an uproar throughout the city, mostly because the transparently concocted rush to judgement by police chief Suhr to justify the shooting completely fell apart.
His bogus scenario has been exposed by a major SF television station as a wholly inaccurate representation of how the murder unfolded.
For example, in the days immediately after the shooting, Suhr presented a single video frame that appears to show Woods extending his arm toward an officer, who, by the way, improperly placed himself in close proximity and directly in front of Woods as he was attempting to walk away.
Suhr also claimed that the single frame video image showed a knife in the young man’s hands.
But, in their own words, television station KQED’s analysis of the same Instagram video “appears to contradict claims by Police Chief Greg Suhr that officers opened fire only after Woods made a threatening movement.”
Elaborating even more, the station concluded that “a careful review of the short Instagram video Suhr referred to suggests that officers opened fire a fraction of a second before Woods’ arm moved. In addition, in the moment Woods’ arm moves, his body appears to be moving backward, as if recoiling from being struck by a gunshot.”
The ACLU letter to the DOJ concludes that the video shooting death of Mario Woods “plainly shows what appears to be an execution-style shooting of a young African American man on a public street by five SFPD officers.”
Strong words backed up with evidence.
SFPD in Hot Water
Here we have a complete repudiation of another in a long line of police cover-ups that has blown the whole issue of police violence wide open and elicited calls for the firing of police chief Suhr, who is, incredulously, the highest paid cop in the nation with a salary above the SF mayor, California governor and even the U.S. vice president.
Reacting to the widespread community uproar, the SF Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution calling for a DOJ investigation into the murder of Mario Woods and police practices in general.
The whole sordid record of recent police murders in San Francisco has also led to blistering criticisms of the SFPD by numerous community figures.
For example, Father Richard Smith of St. John’s Episcopal Church has spoken very frankly about the problem: “There is a prevalent death culture in the SFPD. They view their mission in our community as a them-against-us situation. I fear for my parishioners and all the innocent youth of color who live with a constant fear that on any day a police bullet may take their young lives.”
A very damning indictment from an otherwise temperate voice.
911 Emergency Put on Hold by DOJ
San Francisco offers an vivid example of how leading political authorities largely refuse to hold accountable those engaged in police corruption and brutality so intrinsic to the characteristic national system of command and control policing, absent any real power by communities of color.
And, it offers a more striking example of how deeply entrenched institutional police violence and racism is in our country precisely because it reveals itself so openly in one of the nation’s most liberal cities.
Activists at the “listening session” made abundantly clear they would continue their protests until there is a DOJ investigation. Let’s see how politically uncomfortable things become for those who fail to recognize the severity of the problem.