San Francisco police face Justice Department review

The review comes amid calls for the city police chief's removal sparked when five officers opened fire and killed a 26-year-old man in the on Dec. 2.

Noah Berger/Reuters
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr walks through Super Bowl City in San Francisco on Jan. 27.

The US Department of Justice said Monday it will examine use of force and ethnic disparities in arrests as part of a review of the San Francisco Police Department amid heightened racial tensions.

Unlike investigations by the DOJ's civil rights division, the review will be voluntary and won't end with a court-monitored legal settlement, officials said Monday.

San Francisco's mayor, police chief and others requested the review expected to take about two years and include public reports every six months.

The review will be done by DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, which promotes improvements to officers' ties with communities.

"In the days and months ahead, we will examine the San Francisco Police Department's current operational policies, training practices, and accountability systems, and help identify key areas for improvement going forward," U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

Chief Greg Suhr says the department will fully cooperate.

Law enforcement experts say the review is a less onerous process for police than if the DOJ's civil rights division had launched an investigation.

The civil rights division can force departments into court-monitored legal settlements if it finds constitutional violations like it did recently in Cleveland and Ferguson, Missouri.

The review from the so-called COPS office is usually designed to help a department improve its operations, said University of Missouri-St. Louis criminal justice professor David Klinger.

"It's much more a partnership to improve policies and practices as opposed to a court takeover," Klinger said.

The review comes amid calls for the chief's removal sparked when five officers opened fire and killed Mario Woods, 26, in the city's Bayview neighborhood on Dec. 2.

Police said Woods stabbed a stranger and then refused to drop a knife when approached by officers. Authorities said only one of the five officers involved in the shooting was white. Protests over Woods' death have persisted.

An attorney for Woods' family welcomed the review.

"It is the right and decent thing to do and a step in the right direction toward healing in the African American and Latino communities," attorney John Burris said in a statement.

The department already was grappling with rising racial tensions when Woods was shot.

Earlier in the year, a judge ruled that Suhr waited too long to discipline officers who he discovered had exchanged racist and homophobic text messages. Suhr is appealing the judge's order, which bars him from firing eight of the 14 officers implicated in the scandal.

Suhr said he delayed disciplining the officers because he didn't want to interfere with a federal corruption investigation into several officers. The mayor has stood behind the chief, who says he has no plans to resign.

"The trust in many residents in San Francisco was shaken," the chief said at a press conference Monday announcing the DOJ review. Suhr said the shaken trust prompted him to call on the DOJ to launch its review.

Ronald Davis, head of the DOJ office conducting the review, said nine other law enforcement agencies have been reviewed since the creation of COPS in 2011.

Davis said his office would publicly disclose if officials run into obstacles during their review.

Last week, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon accused the department of stonewalling a recently created panel he convened to investigate police culture and practice, a claim the chief denied.

Last week, the SFPD announced that one step in its efforts to address racism was a new pledge

The pledge announced Monday with an accompanying website is an effort by a popular police chief to restore public trust.

"People that would use racial epithets, slurs and things like that clearly fall below the minimum standard of being a police officer," Police Chief Greg Suhr told the Associated Press. "A cop needs to show character and point that out."

The verbal reinforcement and clear statement of objectives is one effort to change attitudes, but the department is also training for more "less-than-lethal" deescalation techniques. Suhr plans to introduce stun guns and mandatory reporting each time a weapon is pointed at a suspect.

The new website shows officers reciting the pledge, which is designed to be repeated by officers at graduation and each January afterward.

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