Feds reject call for SFPD probe with more bite

The head of the federal department conducting a collaborative review of the San Francisco Police Department’s practices today rejected calls for a more legally binding investigation, expressing confidence in the city’s ability to enforce his department’s findings.

Ronald Davis, director of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services’ division, said the San Francisco Police Department is cooperating fully with the review.

The review, requested by Mayor Ed Lee, was initiated in February in the wake of revelations of racist text messages exchanged among officers, police corruption cases prosecuted in federal court and controversy over recent police shootings.

Community activists and elected officials have called publicly for a more legally binding level of investigation, either by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division or from the state Attorney General’s Office. Investigations conducted by those agencies can result in a court order, while compliance with the COPS review is voluntary.

Davis, a former East Palo Alto police chief, said that while he had heard the complaints that the process was “toothless,” he believed San Francisco had the political will to enforce the findings.

He described the city as having “one of the strongest civilian oversight systems in the country” and noted that the high level of community activism and engagement would also help ensure compliance.

“We’re confident that this process can work, we’re confident that these recommendations will be implemented and we’re confident that they can be enforced locally in the city of San Francisco,” Davis said.

But despite his confidence, Davis did warn that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division could still be called in if investigators uncovered systematic violations of constitutional rights or met with resistance from the Police Department, or if the city failed to implement reforms.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi and the American Civil Liberties Union called last week for stronger investigations by the Justice Department or by state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Adachi today said he remained skeptical that proposed reforms can be implemented without a court order in the face of “institutional resistance” in the Police Department.

He said the department is already seeing strong resistance from its police union to proposed changes in the use of force policy and is struggling to implement crisis intervention training and implicit bias training.

“I’m sure the report will be well-written and well thought out, I’m sure many of the reforms we’ve seen proposed in other troubled departments will be there, but who’s going to be there to watch the store and make sure those reforms will really happen?” Adachi said.

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

The COPS review will be looking at issues including use of force, bias in policing, training, recruitment and hiring, and the department’s handling of disciplinary matters and civilian complaints.

While it will look at issues including the racist text messages and recent police shootings, Davis emphasized that it is not a criminal investigation and any evidence of criminal behavior it uncovers will be turned over to the district attorney’s office or state attorney general.

The office expects to release its findings and recommendations by late summer, and then will follow up with a six-month review of progress made toward implementing reforms.

In total, Davis said his office expects to work with the department and assist with implementation of recommendations for around two years after the report’s release.