DOJ report: How San Francisco police can restore trust

The US Department of Justice published a report with 272 recommendations for the San Francisco Police Department, which has been rocked by a series of racist text message revelations and fatal shootings.

Sudhin Thanawala/ AP
San Francisco interim police chief Toney Chaplin addresses the media in San Francisco on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2016. Chaplin was discussing the results of a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Justice that showed blacks are significantly more likely to be pulled over and have force used against them by San Francisco police than any other racial group.

After police in San Francisco shot and killed a black man named Mario Woods in December, marking the city's sixth fatal officer-involved shooting last year alone, the US Department of Justice launched a review of the department's policies and practices.

That review resulted in a Department of Justice (DOJ) report released Wednesday that outlines 272 recommendations for the department to build community trust and transparency following protests over the shootings and a series of racist, sexist, and homophobic text messages among officers.

"There's going to be some hard truths told today," Ronald Davis, the director of the DOJ's Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, said during a news conference. "But to be selectively ignorant and pretend nothing is gong on around you will ultimately be fatal to the organization."

Unlike the recent federal investigations of police forces in Ferguson, Mo., and Cleveland, Ohio, which resulted in mandatory reforms to address civil rights violations, the DOJ's findings for the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) are non-binding. Compared to a formal civil rights investigation, the review process is less harsh by design, as The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this year:

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.

Even so, the SFPD – which uses force against racial minorities more often and pulls over African-American drivers at disproportionately high rates, according to the DOJ report – has a long way to go to earn the trust of the communities of color it serves.

The Rev. Amos Brown, president of the NAACP's San Francisco chapter, said that to restore trust among black residents, prosecutors need to file criminal charges against the officers who killed Mr. Woods and others.

"Until then, we have a great uphill battle to get this community to trust the police department in the city," Mr. Brown told The Associated Press.

Asians and Hispanics comprise nearly half of San Francisco's population, while black residents account for just 6 percent. The city's 2,000 police officers reflect the city's diversity, with white police constituting only a slight majority and black officers comprising 9 percent of the force.

The department's relative diversity, however, did not prevent two distinct text-messaging scandals, revealed in 2014 and 2016, which involved bigoted messages among officers against minorities and LGBT people.

In response, the DOJ has recommended that officers regularly turn over their electronic communication devices to check for inappropriate interactions, as The San Francisco Chronicle reported. Additionally, the report's recommendations call for better tracking of use-of-force incidents and arming officers with stun guns as an alternative to lethal force.

Martin Halloran, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association, said in a statement that the union does not support 100 percent of the DOJ's recommendations, but it remains "committed to improving the relationship between the police and the community we serve."

The report found no proof of racial bias among officers or the agency as a whole, and race and ethnicity were not significantly associated with the severity of force officers employed. But it did find the black and Hispanic drivers were more likely than whites to be searched, and that those searches were less likely to uncover contraband. 

More research is needed to determine whether the data reflect racism, discrimination, or other factors such as higher call volumes, DOJ officials noted.

Tod Burke, a former police officer and current professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia, says there's a key difference between "bias" and "prejudice."

"I teach my classes that bias is something you think and prejudice is something you act on," Professor Burke told the Monitor last year. "Almost everyone has some kind of bias, but we have to learn how to not act on it."

With that distinction in mind, the DOJ report carried a hopeful message for a controversy-plagued department.

"Implementing the recommendations within this report represents the most promising path forward for the department," the report states. "If the SFPD does so – with sustained diligence and good faith – it will become a model policing agency in this country."

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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