Report of The Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, & Fairness in Law Enforcement
The Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement (the Panel) was established as an advisory body to the San Francisco District Attorney in May 2015 in the wake of revelations that 14 San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) officers had exchanged numerous racist and homophobic text messages. The text messages—milder examples of which included statements such as “Cross burning lowers blood pressure! I did the test myself!” and “I still hate black people”—expressed blatant hostility toward and mocked people of color—including SFPD officers—and insulted lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
The Panel was tasked with answering the critical and obvious question that the text-messaging scandal raised and—to the Panel’s knowledge—no other city agency had investigated: Was the racial and homophobic bias so clearly demonstrated by the offensive texts a reflection of institutionalized bias within the SFPD and, if so, to what extent?
Over a one-year period, the Panel examined a number of different aspects of the SFPD to try to develop a comprehensive understanding of the issue, interviewing more than 100 witnesses and reviewing thousands of public documents. The result is this report. Its findings and recommendations strive to give credit where credit is due, but point to several unmistakable conclusions: 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 issues of bias against people of color, both officers and members of the public. In short, the Panel concludes that the SFPD is in urgent need of important reforms.
The report is also timely. Since the creation of the Panel, several incidents involving the SFPD have significantly increased tensions in San Francisco, underscoring the need for transparency, oversight, and reform. In April 2016, a second texting scandal involving four additional officers using racist language came to light. Notably, like the first texting scandal, the second was discovered only through an unrelated criminal investigation of one of the officers involved—raising the question of whether officers not under criminal investigation have engaged in or been disciplined for similar behavior. Also notable is that texts from the second scandal explicitly refer to the first texting scandal in jest, suggesting that efforts by departmental leadership to emphasize the gravity of the first scandal were lost on at least a subset of the officers most in need of intervention.
The deaths of Mario Woods in December 2015 and Luis Gongora in April 2016 in officer-involved shootings—following similar officer-involved shootings leading to the deaths of Alex Nieto and Amilcar Perez Lopez in the months prior—also significantly raised tensions. These tensions manifested in numerous ways, including sustained protests by groups such as the Justice for Mario Woods Coalition and the Justice for Alex Nieto Coalition at various SFPD-hosted town halls and Police Commission meetings, a prolonged hunger strike by community members nicknamed the “Frisco 5,” and several protest marches.
Shortly after the Mario Woods shooting, the United States Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) agreed to conduct a collaborative review of the SFPD at the request of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Greg Suhr, who was SFPD Chief of Police at the time. The Panel met with the COPS review team to share information about the scope, processes, and goals of each entity’s investigation.
Additional incidents highlighting the need for reform continued to arise throughout the Panel’s investigation. On May 13, 2016, a federal judge dismissed a criminal case that had been investigated by the SFPD, finding that video evidence contradicted SFPD statements and incident reports. According to the judge, “The video was unequivocal in rebutting everything the police officer testified to—at least to all the pertinent details.” On May 19, 2016, another officer-involved shooting in the Bayview neighborhood resulted in the death of Jessica Williams, an unarmed 29-year-old Black woman. Following this incident, Chief Suhr resigned at the request of Mayor Lee. Deputy Chief Toney Chaplin was named Interim Chief.
This report presents findings and recommendations based exclusively on a local review of the SFPD. It cannot, however, be divorced from broader issues surrounding law enforcement accountability nationwide. Across the country, evidence of instances of questionable police conduct—including cellphone and dash camera footage of seemingly avoidable officer-involved shootings, local police officers using military gear and aggressive tactics, and the deaths of citizens while in law enforcement custody—has given rise to a national debate and eroded trust between some communities, primarily communities of color, and their police departments. Questions about transparency, accountability, and fairness in law enforcement have intensified, as have attempts to address those concerns, including the formation of President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
While the incidents that triggered this review of the SFPD were demonstrations of explicit, individual biases, it is important to distinguish institutionalized or systemic bias—the focus of this report—from individual bias. Bias may be institutionalized when it is promoted, condoned, or acquiesced to by an institution’s policies, practices, and/or culture, giving rise to a tendency to produce patterns of differential outcomes. Such bias is especially concerning when it results in unjust outcomes for historically marginalized groups (e.g., groups defined by race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation). The Panel’s investigation and report focus on the SFPD as an institution. The report does not attempt to evaluate the conduct or performance of individual officers.
Fiscal concerns, which are similarly outside the scope of this report, must also be considered in any conversation about reform. Is the current budgetary investment in the SFPD yielding intended outcomes? Is the SFPD spending money effectively? What monitoring should the department’s use of resources be subject to?
Holding any institution under a microscope will inevitably reveal less-than-perfect policies and practices. Public institutions, however, benefit from regular and consistent review and oversight. And law enforcement organizations must be held to a heightened standard based on their responsibility to maintain public safety—an obligation that necessitates building trust with every community. Special scrutiny of law enforcement organizations is also appropriate because of the immense power police officers hold over citizens, from the authority to act as agents of the law to the ability to lawfully end lives, and because of the potential for abuse of those powers.
Over the past year, Mayor Lee has announced plans to fund police training, violence prevention, and other reforms through the city budget. The Panel is hopeful that any reforms address the institutional issues described in this report. It is also important that the resignation of Chief Suhr not be seen as sufficient to address these issues. The SFPD has an unfortunate history of troubling incidents, followed by outside reviews of the department leading to reports and recommendations that are not implemented. The Panel encourages the Mayor, Police Commission, Board of Supervisors, and others in city leadership to make a public commitment to consider the recommendations presented in this report and to provide the public with regular updates on the status of adoption or implementation of the recommendations. Further, the Panel hopes that the California Attorney General and the United States Department of Justice will take into account the report’s findings and recommendations in their review and oversight of the SFPD.
It is common sense that a law enforcement agency “can have the best policies in the world, but if [its] institutional culture doesn’t support them, they won’t work.” The next SFPD chief must have the vision and leadership skills to address the department’s institutional culture—he or she must have the dedication to implement 21st century policing best practices, hold regular and meaningful dialogue with diverse community stakeholders, and demand accountability from the top down. An organizational environment must be developed that encourages a compassionate and professional work ethic while earning and maintaining the respect of all officers and staff. The Police Commission has done well to ensure that community input is incorporated in its development of departmental policy—it should consider a mechanism for community input in identifying its candidates to be the next chief. Further, to help rebuild trust with the community, the Mayor should consider hiring a candidate with an unassailable record.
Although this report examines some of the SFPD’s shortcomings and the areas in which the department can potentially improve, the Panel acknowledges the work of the many fine SFPD officers who do an excellent job every day, serving their communities with distinction, dignity, and respect. This report does not seek to overlook, trivialize, or undermine their dedication, sacrifices, or hard work.
The findings and recommendations in this report are merely a starting point. Addressing any institutionalized bias will ultimately depend on the commitment of SFPD leadership, civic leaders, and the community as a whole. The Panel is hopeful that its recommendations will assist that process. There can be no question that the time to address these issues is now.
View the whole report at http://sfdistrictattorney.org/sites/default/files/Document/BRP_report.pdf