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San Francisco lesson: to help police departments, less could be more

Paths to progress

The Justice Department frustrated critics who wanted a tough crackdown on San Francisco police. But a softer approach could help, too.

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    A man holds up a picture of Mario Woods during a meeting of San Francisco's Police Commission in December in San Francisco.
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When London Breed heard that the United States Department of Justice was not launching a civil rights investigation into the San Francisco Police Department, she was dismayed. 

Despite the fatal shooting of a young black man and another high-profile racial incident, the Justice Department was only going to conduct a review of the SFPD. It would work with the department to refine training procedures and use-of-force policies. 

That was all well and good, the president of the city's Board of Supervisors told the San Francisco Examiner, “but there’s a lot of community distrust with the department, and we have to figure out a way to rebuild that trust, and I don’t know what this is gonna do to help with that.”

Actually, policing experts say, the Justice Department review could do quite a bit to address those concerns precisely.

The review is admittedly less harsh than the investigations the Justice Department launched in Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo., which led to court-ordered reforms. But that is partly the point. The move speaks to the Obama administration's growing focus – in the face of heightened racial tensions and eroded police-community relations – on collaborative efforts to reform law enforcement policies and practices around the country.   

And the program's track record speaks to some success. The Justice Department launched the collaborative reform initiative in 2011, and one police expert calls the report on the first participant, Las Vegas, "outstanding."

If rebuilding trust is the goal, experts say, the Justice Department review could be an effective tool. 

“The important part is having transparency in police agencies and gaining back trust in the community,” says Tod Burke, a former Maryland police officer who is now a criminal justice professor at Radford University in Virginia. “Policy is often enforced by the officers. You have to have buy-in from the police and buy-in from the community” for any strategy to work.

“That’s where the transparency is,” he adds. “That’s what this initiative is all about.”

On Monday, the Justice Department said San Francisco will be the 10th city to take part in the collaborative reform initiative. The announcement came shortly after the fatal shooting of Mario Woods in December sparked protests across the city. It also comes in the wake of a scandal uncovered last year in which city police officers exchanged racist and homophobic texts in 2012.  

What the review does

The idea behind the Justice Department's collaborative reform initiative is to advance community policing strategies to foster trust and respect between law enforcement and the people they serve.

Its two years in Las Vegas gives a glimpse of how the program works. Together, the Justice Department's Office on Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) and the CNA Institute for Public Research – a nonprofit research firm – examined the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department's policies and practices. 

They interviewed dozens of residents, community leaders, police officers, and other stakeholders. They analyzed data surrounding officer-involved shootings and other incidents involving the use of force.

The goal was “to gain a better and deeper understanding of the relationship between the LVMPD and the community,” says Stephen Rickman, a business developer at CNA who was among those sent to Las Vegas to conduct the review.

Prior to the review, the department was grappling with allegations of racial bias. The Las Vegas Review-Journal published a scathing series on the department’s tally of officer-involved shootings – a record 25 in 2010.

By the time COPS and CNA published their final report in 2014, the LVMPD had completed 72 of 80 recommended reforms, including an overhaul of its use-of-force policies. The number of officer-involved shootings had dropped by nearly 40 percent and has remained below historical averages, year to year. The department regularly updates the public about violent incidents involving police and holds weekly open forums with members of the community.

And while the LVMPD still faces many challenges, such as a lack of diversity among its officers, experts say the results so far are promising.

“The report on Las Vegas was outstanding,” says Sam Walker, a professor at the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. And while “we don’t know the long-term impact yet … it’s an important alternative to past practices.”

The collaborative model’s strength, criminal justice experts say, lies in its voluntary nature: Unlike the civil rights division, whose investigations are mandated, COPS will not step in unless invited by a police department or city officials.

“That gives people more of a sense that their input means something,” which can be transformative, says David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh professor of law who specializes in police practices, racial profiling, and other criminal justice issues.

“The idea has simply grown that it isn’t enough to come in with your authority and impose change,” he adds. “You want to try to involve as many of the parties [as possible] who are going to have to end up living with that [new] structure. You just stand a better chance of success that way.”

Optimism amid realism

Since leaving Las Vegas, COPS has intervened in police departments in Philadelphia; St. Louis County in Missouri; and Spokane, Wash., among others. 

San Francisco Police Department “Chief [Greg] Suhr joins many other police chiefs around the country who have met to discuss reviews of use of force policies,” writes Sgt. Michael Andraychak, an SFPD spokesman, in an e-mail. “The Chief is open to a review of the SFPD’s policies, procedures, and training with the goal of making the Department the best we can be.”

The desire among some for a stronger investigation is understandable, says Professor Harris. 

“Where people have been in an environment where they haven’t been heard, and they have no confidence in their leaders and police department to make the changes or follow through, they’ll prefer a more forceful model,” Harris says. But in the end, he notes, collaborative reform promises communities “the opportunity to become involved in the process of crafting the remedies.”

“And if you want structural transformative change, and you want it to stick, better to involve as many people as you can in the planning and execution, [and have] as many people as you can buying in,” he says.

Yet even advocates of the collaborative model acknowledge that the process is new, and will need to be revised and revisited to ensure success and sustainability over the years. They also recognize that trust needs time to take root – especially in places where police-community relationships have eroded over decades, if not generations.

“There’s still challenges. There’s still resistance to certain aspects of reform,” says Mr. Rickman of CNA. For both police officers and communities, “it takes time to overcome the cultures from which they came. You can’t throw a switch.”

Still, a sense of optimism seeps through the caution.

“Departments are much more receptive than ever before,” Rickman says. “In spite of all the background noise, the tensions, this is a good time. Society is beginning to transform itself.”

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