San Francisco Civil Grand Jury and Blue Ribbon Panel rip SFPD for racial bias

Report details findings and recommendations from year-long investigation into issues of institutionalized bias within the San Francisco Police Department

Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, a member of the three-judge Blue Ribbon Panel, reads from the report on discipline, transparency and other SFPD issues. – Photo: Connor Radnovich, SF Chronicle
Retired Judge LaDoris Cordell, a member of the three-judge Blue Ribbon Panel, reads from the report on discipline, transparency and other SFPD issues. – Photo: Connor Radnovich, SF Chronicle

San Francisco – The Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement has released its final report detailing its year-long investigation into issues of potential bias in the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD). The panel found that the SFPD is in need of greater transparency, lacks robust oversight, must rebuild trust with the communities it serves, and should pay greater attention to the potential for bias against people of color, with respect to both its own police officers and members of the public.

Initiated by San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón as an advisory body in May 2015, the panel was tasked with investigating potential institutionalized bias in the department in the wake of revelations that 14 SFPD officers had exchanged numerous racist and homophobic text messages. The panel is composed of three volunteer, former judges with decades of experience in law enforcement oversight – Justice Cruz Reynoso (California Supreme Court), Judge LaDoris H. Cordell (Superior Court, Santa Clara County) and Judge Dickran M. Tevrizian Jr. (U.S. District Court for the Central District of California).

“This important report, based on an investigation conducted by experienced and objective law firms, is a comprehensive evaluation of bias within the San Francisco Police Department,” said Judge Cordell.

The panel was supported pro bono by law firm working groups that examined the extent to which bias was institutionalized within the SFPD’s policies and practices in eight areas: stops, searches and arrests; personnel; use of force and officer-involved shootings; internal discipline; external oversight, Brady policies and practices; culture; and crime data.

“This important report, based on an investigation conducted by experienced and objective law firms, is a comprehensive evaluation of bias within the San Francisco Police Department,” said Judge Cordell.

“Repairing trust between the SFPD and the communities it serves requires a department transparent enough for the public to hold it accountable,” said panel Executive Director Anand Subramanian. “The panel’s findings and recommendations provide a roadmap to get closer to that goal.”

The report includes 72 findings across eight chapters corresponding to the law firm working groups’ issue areas. Among the key findings:

  • Black and Latino people were searched without consent by SFPD officers far more than White and Asian people. Further, the “hit rates” (rates at which contraband was found) were much lower for Black and Latino people in these cases, a red flag for racial bias.
  • There is a systemic lack of internal controls or external audit functions. For example,
    • The SFPD does not track or evaluate discipline data in a robust manner and rarely acts when Early Intervention System warnings are triggered.
    • Complaints made to the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) rarely result in disciplinary consequences, and when they do, the discipline imposed is almost always mild.
    • No external body currently audits SFPD operational effectiveness, high-risk activities or compliance with policies.

Among the 81 recommendations in the report, the panel urges the creation of an Office of Inspector General that would regularly audit the SFPD and OCC for effectiveness and policy compliance. Other key recommendations include:

  • The SFPD should implement a system to monitor and facilitate officer and supervisor compliance with its data collection policy.
  • The Police Commission should create and implement transparent hiring and promotions processes and criteria, including a requirement that every candidate’s disciplinary history and secondary criteria be considered.

“Transparency and accountability of law enforcement is absolutely essential in a free society to protect the public and instill confidence in the system,” said Judge Tevrizian. “We hope this report and its findings will be seriously considered and its recommendations will be implemented.”

The report also details difficulties the panel encountered in obtaining information from the SFPD, including restrictions on attempts to secure independent officer interviews and public departmental records. The department’s data collection and publication practices were also found to be inconsistent and substandard.

“Transparency and accountability of law enforcement is absolutely essential in a free society to protect the public and instill confidence in the system,” said Judge Tevrizian.

“The panel’s report is the result of an extensive investigation process that included some 100 interviews, including city and police officials, police officers and community leaders and members; review of thousands of documents; data analysis; and consultation with outside experts on best policing practices,” said Jerry Roth, who served pro bono as the panel’s general counsel and is a partner with the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson.

Across the country, relations between communities of color and police have been deteriorating, most recently demonstrated by two fatal officer-involved shootings of Black men in Louisiana and Minnesota and the targeted attack on Dallas police officers July 7 and on Baton Rouge officers July 17. The panel’s report comes at a time when strained relations between communities and police in San Francisco have gained national attention due to several high-profile incidents, including the original texting scandal, several fatal officer-involved shootings, and a second texting scandal.

The Blue Ribbon Panel of three prominent retired judges – Judge Cruz Reynoso, Judge Dickran M. Tevrizian and Judge LaDoris H. Cordell – announce their findings on SFPD oversight. – Photo: Connor Radnovich, SF Chronicle
The Blue Ribbon Panel of three prominent retired judges – Judge Cruz Reynoso, Judge Dickran M. Tevrizian and Judge LaDoris H. Cordell – announce their findings on SFPD oversight. – Photo: Connor Radnovich, SF Chronicle

“The panel’s judges appreciate the time and effort put into delivering this important report,” said Justice Reynoso. “There is much yet to be done.”

The panel’s report and executive summary can be downloaded at http://SFBlueRibbonPanel.com.

To learn more, contact Executive Director Anand Subramanian at anand@policylink.org.

San Francisco Civil Grand Jury: Investigations of SFPD officer-involved shootings must be more timely and transparent

San Francisco – The 2015-2016 San Francisco Civil Grand Jury (CGJ) calls upon City and County agencies investigating officer-involved shootings (OIS) by the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) to complete their investigations more quickly and to make the entire process more transparent.

For its report, “Into the Open: Opportunities for More Timely and Transparent Investigations of Fatal San Francisco Police Department Officer-Involved Shootings,” the CGJ tracked the investigations related to the 18 fatal SFPD OIS incidents since 2011 and reached three main conclusions:

  • Investigations of fatal OIS incidents take too long.
  • The public lacks access to information about the process by which OIS incidents are investigated.
  • City and county agencies share too little information with the public about individual fatal OIS investigations.

“The citizens of San Francisco don’t get enough information to determine whether the current OIS investigation process works properly or whether the results of these investigations are fair and just,” said Civil Grand Juror Eric Vanderpool. “We have made a number of recommendations directed at each of the City agencies involved that would remedy this problem.” The agencies involved include the SFPD, the DA’s Office, the Police Commission and the Office of Citizens Complaints.

In its boldest recommendation, the CGJ challenges the City to create an oversight task force to mitigate the perception of bias in fatal OIS investigations and to ensure that fatal OIS investigations are completed quickly and transparently. Currently, the SFPD takes the lead in investigating shootings by its own officers, with the District Attorney (DA) conducting a parallel criminal investigation and the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) conducting an administrative one.

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr speaks during a town hall meeting on April 13, 2016, to update the Mission District neighborhood on the investigation of an officer involved shooting in San Francisco. His rush to judgment after each killing that always exonerated the officers and criminalized the victim so angered Black and Brown communities that, a week after this meeting, the communities united to support the Frisco 5 hunger strikers, whose first demand was the firing of Chief Suhr. Their strike lasted 17 days, and on May 19, Suhr resigned. – Photo: Eric Risberg, AP
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr speaks during a town hall meeting on April 13, 2016, to update the Mission District neighborhood on the investigation of an officer involved shooting in San Francisco. His rush to judgment after each killing that always exonerated the officers and criminalized the victim so angered Black and Brown communities that, a week after this meeting, the communities united to support the Frisco 5 hunger strikers, whose first demand was the firing of Chief Suhr. Their strike lasted 17 days, and on May 19, Suhr resigned. – Photo: Eric Risberg, AP

The CGJ recommends that this new oversight task force include high ranking persons from the Sheriff’s Office, the DA’s Office, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the SFPD and the OCC, among others.

The CGJ also urges the SFPD and the DA’s Office to streamline and prioritize OIS investigations so that they are completed more quickly. The CGJ also recommends that each City agency involved in OIS investigations create a webpage to educate the public about that agency’s role in the investigations and to keep the public informed about each OIS investigation.

Because the CGJ found that none of the agencies fundamental to OIS investigations has done an adequate job of informing the citizens of San Francisco how the process works, the CGJ report includes an outline and timeline of how OIS incidents are investigated based on department policies.

The CGJ report also contains summaries of each of the 18 fatal SFPD OIS incidents. “The Jury felt that it was important to remember that the ultimate result in every one of these fatal officer-involved shootings is the loss of a life,” Vanderpool added, “regardless of whether one thinks the actions of the police were proper or not. To acknowledge that, we identify all 18 individuals in our report and provide a synopsis of events leading to their deaths.”

The Superior Court selects 19 San Franciscans to serve year-long terms as Civil Grand Jurors. The Jury has the authority to investigate City and County government by reviewing documents and interviewing public officials and private individuals. At the end of its investigations, the Jury issues reports outlining findings and recommendations. County agencies identified in the report receive copies and must respond to these findings and recommendations. The Board of Supervisors conducts a public hearing on each CGJ report.

The public may view this specific report here and all CGJ reports online at http://civilgrandjury.sfgov.org/report.html.