Gascón panel: SFPD lacks accountability

Preliminary findings from a blue-ribbon panel reviewing police practices and policies suggest the San Francisco Police Department lacks transparency and accountability in many areas, a panel official said Monday.

The panel of three judges, convened by District Attorney George Gascón a year ago in the wake of revelations about a series of racist text messages exchanged among a group of officers, expects to release a final report within a few weeks, Anand Subramanian, the panel’s executive director, said Monday.

A summary of preliminary findings will be presented at a meeting tonight by the panel’s seven working groups, which have focused on areas including stops, searches and arrests; hiring; use of force; internal discipline; external oversight; culture; crime data and Brady policy, regarding the release of evidence that is potentially favorable to a defendant.

Subramanian said in an email:

“A common theme from the working groups is that the SFPD is not transparent and lacks accountability because there is no auditing of its functions in any meaningful way.”

Among other preliminary findings, the panel is expected to report that police disproportionately stop and search black and Latino people and is inconsistent in its data about such practices, Subramanian said.

The panel’s working groups have found that no entity regularly audits the police department, Subramanian said. Disciplinary procedures are lacking in transparency or accountability in the form of tracking or data collection and complaints made by citizens rarely result in disciplinary consequences.

Other working groups report that the department’s hiring practices are highly discretionary, leading to a potential for bias and favoritism, and the background investigation process requires more transparency.

The blue-ribbon panel and Gascón, who was chief of police in San Francisco before he became district attorney, have repeatedly drawn fire from the San Francisco Police Officer’s Association, which has rejected allegations that the police department has a problem with racism or racial bias in the ranks.

The association has claimed the panel refused to hear testimony from minority officers who rebut those allegations, while the panel in turn has accused the union of obstructing its investigations.

The association Monday released a statement calling the report “a biased, one-sided and illegitimate work of fiction.”

SFPOA President Martin Halloran said in a statement:

“Gascón handpicked his own panel, and refused to hear from any witnesses who disagree with him, and so Gascón’s report should be filed in the fiction section of the library.”

In the time since the panel began its work, the department has faced intense controversy in response to two police shootings involving black and Latino men, Mario Woods and Luis Gongora, and the release last month of a new set of text messages containing racist language.

Four officers have left the department or been referred for possible discipline in response to the latest text message scandal, which came to light during an investigation into sexual assault allegations made against an officer.

In response, the department has launched a review of use of force policies — which the panel’s preliminary findings indicate are badly in need of updating — and begun a collaborative review process with the U.S.

Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services division.

Police Chief Greg Suhr has also announced efforts to improve training in areas such as implicit racial bias, harassment and firearm use and said he will not tolerate racist language or behavior from officers. One recent department initiative encourages San Francisco police officers to turn in fellow officers heard using racist or derogatory language.

The justice department on Friday provided preliminary feedback on the department’s proposed revisions to its use of force policies that commended the department for conducting the revisions with public input, according to Police Commission President Suzy Loftus.

Among other recommendations, justice department officials urged the city to consider language emphasizing a need to deescalate dangerous encounters and encouraging officers to seek “alternatives to arrest,” and also that it seek “external and independent criminal investigations” of all officer-involved shootings. Currently, such shootings are investigated by the district attorney’s office and police department.

In addition, justice department officials suggested the creation of a Serious Incident Review Board including both sworn staff and community members to review shootings and other incidents “that have the potential to damage community trust or confidence in the agency…”

The Justice Department did not give a firm recommendation on the use of Taser stun guns, which have proven controversial in San Francisco, but did say they have been shown to reduce injuries.

Loftus said she would be taking the Justice Department’s comments to the Police Commission for consideration on Wednesday.

Mayor Ed Lee said he was directing the commission and city departments to immediately begin exploring ways to implement the justice department’s recommendations.

“We welcome DOJ’s honest feedback, and we will incorporate their recommendations into our policies and pursue other best practices suggested for consideration,” Lee said in a statement.