Supes drag Lee into chilly ‘question time’

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was grilled Tuesday on his plans for handling police reform and growing community unrest in an unusually confrontational appearance before the Board of Supervisors.

In his monthly appearance for the board Lee outlined a proposal for $17.5 million in new funding for reform and prevention efforts over the next two years, but met with intense criticism from board members.

“Question time” is normally a highly structured event, with pre-approved questions submitted by board members and prepared answers from the mayor. Tuesday’s event went rapidly off script, however, with Board President London Breed and others asking Lee how he planned to deal with protests over recent police shootings, text message scandals and allegations of racial bias.

The police department has been the subject of intense controversy and protests since the shooting of Mario Woods in December, with activists repeatedly calling for the resignation or firing of Police Chief Greg Suhr.

That controversy increased with the police shooting of Luis Gongora in April and recent revelations of racist text messages exchanged among several officers, which were uncovered during an investigation into sexual assault allegations against an officer.

In response, the mayor and police department have announced a series of reforms in recent months, including a review of use of force policies, improved officer training in areas including implicit racial bias, conflict de-escalation and crisis intervention, and programs urging officers to turn in other officers who use racially derogatory language.

The department is also working with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services on a review of department practices and policies.

Lee said in a statement:

“These critical investments in funding police department reform, rebuilding community trust, and bringing a culture change in how we handle conflicts on our streets will help keep San Francisco one of the safest big cities in the nation.”

Despite the reform efforts, however, Lee, who has repeatedly expressed his continuing support for Suhr, has struggled to get ahead of community outrage.

The conflict built last week into mass protests centered around a group, referred to as the Frisco 5, who staged a hunger strike in an attempt to force Lee to fire Suhr. Protesters took over City Hall on Tuesday and again on Friday, leading to broken windows, damaged metal detectors and dozens of arrests.

“The community is in pain,” Board President London Breed said Tuesday, asking the mayor how he planned to deal with the impasse with protesters and “bring this city together to make sure that everyone feels safe in their communities?”

Lee responded by noting that his budget proposal for the next two years included $11.3 million for violence prevention programs and crisis response and outreach teams, $4.4 million for additional police training and equipment and $1.8 million for five additional investigators in the Office of Citizen Complaints, which investigates allegations of officer misconduct.

The response was greeted with chanting from the audience of “Fire Chief Suhr!” which briefly shut the meeting down, and a less than enthusiastic response from some supervisors.

Supervisor Eric Mar said:

“Mr. Mayor, I’m very pleased with the progress you’re reporting, but I’ll just be frank and say respectfully that it’s not enough.”

Mar and Supervisor David Campos questioned the mayor about his willingness to consider recent reform recommendations made by the Public Defender’s Racial Justice Committee and by a blue-ribbon panel convened by District Attorney George Gascon, while Supervisor Aaron Peskin asked the mayor if he would consider mediation with protesters by former Mayor Willie Brown and Public Defender Jeff Adachi.

Lee expressed a tentative willingness to consider the board’s suggestions, but responded pointedly to a question on how he planned to repair the relationship with the community.

Lee said:

“We have as elected officers a shared responsibility to reduce violence and create a situation where dialogue does not create more tension.”