From: San Francisco Chronicle
By Vivian Ho 7/12/16
A panel of retired judges that offered a blueprint for police reforms in San Francisco took special aim at the way officers are investigated and disciplined, citing failures throughout a process that it said should be tougher, more consistent and far more transparent to the public.
The 239-page report by a blue-ribbon panel created by District Attorney George Gascón to look into police bias recommends big changes, including placing the Police Department’s internal affairs division under civilian management and launching an online portal that would allow the public to track investigations of officers every step of the way.
The department, the judges found, rarely intervenes with potentially troubled officers flagged by an early-warning system that monitors their interactions with the public, and the way police leaders sanction officers for bad behavior isn’t tracked or audited in a meaningful way — either by department officials or city regulators.
The report, which offers rare insight into a disciplinary process often shrouded in secrecy, was undertaken after a profound breakdown: the department’s inability to fire several officers who had exchanged racist and homophobic text messages, because the one-year statute of limitations for such discipline had passed.
Released Monday, the study comes at a critical time as police forces across the country are grappling with demands for greater accountability and transparency. The panel of judges, and outside experts, say a strong system of discipline and oversight is needed to set a strong cultural standard for police officers.
“Inadequate discipline is tantamount to no discipline, in that discipline has to be adequate in order to change behavior,” said Roger Clark, a police procedures consultant and former lieutenant with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, who was not involved in the San Francisco report.
Police officials, who are now acting under the command of interim Chief Toney Chaplin, did not respond to questions about the report, but said they would analyze it in coming weeks and forward it to the U.S. Department of Justice, which is conducting its own top-to-bottom review of the San Francisco force.
Harry Stern, a Bay Area attorney who represents police officers, said the report had a “fundamental flaw” — a focus on meting out severe discipline that he called a “body count” mentality. Like the union representing rank-and-file officers, he called the report — prepared by the judges and an array of local law firms that volunteered their time — a political move by Gascón, a former city police chief.
“George Gascón was never an effective police chief, and so he focuses on punishment instead of a fair process,” Stern said. “The result is a political press release, not a path toward improving the San Francisco Police Department and, in turn, making for a safer city.”
In San Francisco, officers are investigated by the internal affairs division or the civilian Office of Citizen Complaints, or both. Cases are forwarded to the police chief, who can seek discipline up to a 10-day suspension. If the chief believes an officer requires more severe discipline or termination, he can forward the case to the Police Commission.
According to the report, the internal affairs division does not track its cases in a way that would allow the public to understand how it does its job.
Internal affairs “publishes no statistics about the number and types of cases it investigates, the percentage of complaints that are sustained, or any factual summaries of the complaints it investigates,” the report states. “When the Panel requested that the SFPD provide it with the number of bias complaints investigated or sustained over the last five years, the SFPD could not respond to the request because it did not track this data.”
The lack of information, the report says, “suggests a lack of self-evaluation.” In addition, the report found, no one has audited internal affairs in years.
The report says the department’s disciplinary guidelines haven’t been updated since 1994. While the judges said the Police Commission was effective in many ways, they found that commissioners don’t rely on any formal policies when handing down discipline. And the commissioners do not scrutinize why some cases are disposed of earlier in the process.
The panel was also critical of the Police Department’s early intervention system, which uses a point system to flag officers who, for example, repeatedly use force or become the subject of citizen complaints.
In 2015, there were 307 alerts among 156 officers, with two having eight or more and 15 with five or more alerts. Only nine officers received an intervention, the panel found.
Stern, the police lawyer, said the system was “set up to ensnare proactive cops, those who take crime fighting seriously.”
The blue-ribbon panel concluded that the Office of Citizen Complaints rarely recommended serious discipline. Not a single investigation of an officer that originated with the office has resulted in more than a 10-day suspension since 2012, the report says.
From 2013 through 2015, there were 1,920 total complaints to the civilian office. In 147 cases, some form of discipline was imposed — or 8 percent. Nine complaints resulted in a suspension.
“These statistics are troubling and raise questions about whether officers are being held accountable to the citizens they serve,” the panel wrote.
The report said the Office of Citizen Complaints had improved under new leadership since a scathing audit in 2007, but that it still moves too slowly and needs more resources. It takes more than nine months, on average, to close a case. With a $5.1 million annual budget for 35 employees, the average caseload per investigator last year was 27 cases, even though the 2007 audit said it should be no more than 16.
The office’s director, Joyce Hicks, said Tuesday that she was still making her way through the report, but took the critiques to heart. She said her office received a bump in the budget for the next fiscal year, and just hired three more senior investigators. She said she also hired a staff attorney to “look at operations and look at the findings in this report to make recommendations for how we can be more effective.”
“I want the OCC to be the best it can be to serve the public,” she said. “With the adequate resources in place, we can do that.”
She said her office had referred a case to the Police Commission for discipline in December, but the officer retired before it could be adjudicated.
Hicks and Police Commission President Suzy Loftus said the panel’s findings were unsurprising — both had worked with the panel during its investigation.
“Some of the recommendations we’ve already moved towards, and I think they came from some of the things the commissioners shared with them,” Loftus said. “Any good idea in any of this, we’re happy to look at. Any good idea can be considered.”