The recently announced federal probe of the San Francisco Police Department in the wake of the Mario Woods killing signals the beginning in San Francisco of a standard fact-finding mission to determine whether there is a “pattern or practice” of discrimination or misconduct. Those of us who have lived and worked in this city for years don’t need to wait for the results of a federal probe. We know all too well that, long before Mario Woods’ death, the San Francisco Police Department has been badly in need of reform.
In fact, San Francisco has a long history of aggressive policing in the black, Latino, Asian Pacific Islander and LGBT communities, and of police violence and misconduct more broadly. Many are familiar with the recent history, from the police shootings of Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez-Lopez to the rash of disgusting racist and homophobic text messages exchanged between SFPD officers.
But this culture of violence, disrespect and worse goes back much further. Newer transplants might not remember SFPD beatdowns of gay men in the Castro during the 1970s. Or that the SFPD was under a federal consent decree to diversify hiring for two decades, ending in 1999. Or the killing of Idriss Stelley in 2001, when a young man clearly in mental health crisis was shot by police at the Metreon Theater. Or an incident in 2006 when officers shot Asa B. Sullivan in the attic of his friend’s home, mistaking him for a trespasser with a gun when he was in fact holding a case for glasses.
Holding police accountable
For us, the pattern revealed is bright and clear. Our law enforcement must be held to the very highest standards. Their jobs must be about securing and sustaining community trust and inclusion as an integral part of protecting public safety. So we don’t need to wait for the results of a federal investigation to demand that our city’s leaders take a forceful — and hands-on — approach to reforming the SFPD now. An important step was taken when Mayor Ed Lee instructed the Police Commission to adopt a new use-of-force policy. Much more can — and must — be done to bring lasting reform.
Real change will involve two transformational shifts to our approach to policing, and a number of specific improvements to follow. First, and most urgently, we need to fundamentally rethink the use of force. A police officer’s job should be, above all else, to preserve the sanctity of life.
Second, police officers need to be held accountable not only to a legal standard that may allow them to shoot, but to a community standard that demands they do everything possible to avoid a shooting. Police officers work for the people. They are paid by us to protect and serve, not to jeopardize our lives. We have never authorized police to act as jury and executioner in our communities. In other words, when faced with a difficult situation, officers should not ask, “What are the legal limits of our response?” but “What is the most effective way to de-escalate this situation?”
These shifts in thinking demand three significant and specific reforms:
(1) Put sanctity of life first. Develop an overarching approach that helps to ensure that everyone walks away from an incident alive. The city needs to invest in rigorous, department-wide and sustained de-escalation training, so that when officers face a high-pressure situation they are prepared to turn down the volume, instead of turning it up.
(2) Bring on new officers. The department needs to remove old-school, retired officers from any role in the hiring process in order to diversify the force. We also need to hire officers who understand how to use their words to de-escalate a crisis.
(3) Provide all officers with defensive equipment. That should include shields, stab-resistant vests, stun guns (if their use is tightly controlled) and more.
Don’t wait for feds to act
San Francisco’s police leadership has taken significant steps toward reform that should be supported — and put on steroids, including the creation of crisis intervention teams, bias training and equipping officers with body cameras. But the retrograde and downright thuggish behavior of the leadership of the San Francisco Police Officers Association continues to stand in the way of any deep and meaningful change in the department. We both worked for years in the San Francisco district attorney’s office, and we know that there are many thoughtful police officers who welcome reform. SFPD officers should demand a police union that does the same.
Mario Woods’ death rightly shook the city to its core. A community at odds with itself over its protectors is sick in its soul. Thanks to the enormous passion and advocacy of #BlackLivesMatter leaders and others, the city is confronting a malignancy that has been swept under the rug for much too long. There is no need to wait for the federal government to spell out the pattern that is already apparent — our communities have already waited long enough. Our city’s leaders need to put an end — right away — to a long pattern of aggressive policing and racially tainted justice.
Lateefah Simon is program director at the Rosenberg Foundation. Tim Silard is president of the Rosenberg Foundation.