As feds bail, SF stands behind police reforms

San Francisco city and police officials Tuesday said they will continue to implement reforms recommended last year by the U.S. Department of Justice despite changes in the federal program under the Trump Administration.

Justice Department officials on Friday announced major changes to the Community Oriented Policing Services Office’s Collaborative Reform Initiative, a program initiated under former President Barack Obama that allowed troubled police departments to voluntarily enter into a reform process supervised by federal authorities.

The office previously conducted audits of practices in departments struggling with problems such as excessive use of force or racial bias, then recommended reforms and provided technical assistance in implementing its recommendations to help rebuild community trust.

It will now focus its efforts on targeted assistance for departments for fighting violent crime, Justice Department officials said Friday.

San Francisco entered into a voluntary COPS review in February 2016 at the request of Mayor Ed Lee and former police Chief Greg Suhr in the wake of revelations of racist text messages exchanged among officers and controversy over police shootings including the December 2015 death of Mario Woods.

The public outcry and protests over the shootings, in particular, ultimately led to the sudden departure of Suhr in May 2016 despite his efforts to initiate reform.

The review, one of the largest undertaken by the COPS Office, resulted in a report released in October that found problems in the department including racial disparities in traffic stops and searches, poor handling of use of force incidents and a lack of transparency in officer discipline, among many others.

The report included 272 recommendations for reform in areas including use of force, police bias, community-policing practices, accountability and recruitment and personnel practices.

Despite the changes in the federal program, Lee and new police Chief William Scott today said they planned to continue implementing the report’s recommendations.

Forty-five percent of those recommendations are complete, in the approval process or under review, including revisions in the use of force policy, the implementation of new investigative procedures for officer-involved shootings, and ongoing audits of department-issued cellphones and email accounts for potential bias, officials said.

Lee said:

“We made a pledge to the people of this city that we would transform our police department into a model of 21st century law enforcement and we intend to honor that commitment, regardless of the involvement of the Department of Justice.”

Scott said the Police Department is:

“… determined to strengthen trust between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve. … The Department of Justice process provided our department with a blueprint that will enable us to become a model law enforcement agency.”

Scott added:

“We are more determined than ever to see this crucial work fulfilled.”

Some of the Justice Department’s recommendations will be easier to implement than others. The San Francisco Police Officers’ Association fought some changes to the department’s use of force policy, and community activists have fought off several attempts to arm police officers with Taser stun guns, as recommended by the report.

San Francisco Police Officers’ Association president Martin Halloran said the union was committed to working with City Hall to pursue “sensible reforms that protect the public and police officers”:

“Tasers, which were included in the Department of Justice recommendations, are a key issue for police officers and we will keep advocating for them.”

The changes in the COPS Office were denounced by police reform advocates including the American Civil Liberties Union, which said ending the program would harm communities of color.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions said in a statement that the changes in the program will fulfill his commitment to:

“respect local control and accountability, while still delivering important tailored resources to local law enforcement to fight violent crime. … This is a course correction to ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support.”