SFPD to undergo Justice Department reform review

U.S. Justice Department and San Francisco officials announced Monday that the Justice Department will review the city’s police policies and practices in a process known as collaborative reform.

San Francisco will be the nation’s 10th city to be studied in the department’s four-year-old Collaborative Reform Initiative for Technical Assistance for cities with significant law enforcement issues.

In this program, the department conducts an independent review, but with the cooperation of local authorities, and makes recommendations.

Compliance with the recommendations is voluntary.

Justice official Ron Davis said at a news conference at the Federal Building in The City:

“You will see a very candid response as to what is working and not working.”

Davis, a former East Palo Alto police chief, heads the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, office, which sponsors the collaborative reform program.

The San Francisco review comes after officers’ fatal shooting of Mario Woods, 26, who was allegedly carrying a knife, in the Bayview District on Dec. 2, police corruption cases prosecuted in federal court, and revelations of racist text messages exchanged among officers.

Mayor Ed Lee, who asked for the review, said:

“The request was an open effort to make sure we have the best practices we can possibly have.”

The effort is intended to help rebuild trust between police and the community, Lee said:

“We quite frankly need to repair that trust and move quickly on that.”

The collaborative procedure, with reliance on voluntary compliance, is different from other types of Justice Department investigations with stronger enforcement mechanisms.

Other options for the federal agency are a civil rights investigation into a city’s police practices, which can result in a civil lawsuit or a court-supervised consent decree, or a criminal case.

John Burris, a lawyer who filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city on behalf of Woods’ family, had asked for a stronger civil rights probe.

He called the planned review:

“… half a loaf. … It’s not exactly what we wanted.”

Burris added that the collaborative review:

“… can have a powerful effect on evaluating policies and procedures. A great deal of progress can be done. … “The mayor and police have to be willing to be examined. If they have the long view, this is an opportunity for that to happen.”

Police Chief Greg Suhr joined Lee in supporting the review.

“It has not been lost on anybody” that trust in the Police Department “has been shaken,” Suhr said at the news conference.

The review will not specifically investigate the Mario Woods case.

Acting U.S. Attorney Brian Stretch said at the start of the conference that federal and local officials have agreed that investigation will initially be conducted by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon.

But Stretch said that if a federal issue surfaces that is not addressed in the local probe, the Justice Department could step in later with a federal criminal investigation.

Davis also said, “Nothing we’re doing today would preclude” the Justice Department from undertaking any other steps, such as a civil rights lawsuit against the city, later if that seems warranted.

Other cities and counties where the department is currently conducting a collaborative review include Salinas, Calexico, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Spokane, Wash., St. Louis County, Mo., and Fayetteville, N.C.

A collaborative review of Baltimore police was begun in 2014 but changed into a civil rights investigation in 2015.

In 2012, the department completed collaborative review recommendations for Las Vegas and in 2013, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department implemented more than 95 percent of them, according to the Justice Department.

Davis said an assessment and recommendations for San Francisco are expected to be completed in eight to 10 months and will be made public.

After that, the Justice Department will provide technical assistance in carrying out the recommendations and will monitor the Police Department and issue two progress reports over 18 months.