This week the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office held its annual Justice Summit. The theme this year was the very appropriate “Race and Reform.” The keynote speaker focused on the issue of implicit bias. There were two panels – one of individuals who were on the receiving end of disparate treatment and one of the public officials.
This is the first of a four-part series on the event and this will cover the comments by SF District Attorney George Gascon and SF Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, both of whom saw themselves under fire for various scandals in the last few months.
As Public Defender Jeff Adachi said in introducing the topic, “In San Francisco we have had a series of scandals involving law enforcement and it’s forced us to seek solutions.” The panel sought to look at solutions – “how do we address these issues?”
Mr. Gascon was asked by the public defender whether it was a conflict for the DA’s office, which has to work with police officers and rely on them for testimony to gain convictions, to be asked to investigate law enforcement when law enforcement is accused of wrongdoing.
Mr. Gascon responded, “Constitutionally, one of our charges is to investigate public corruption which may include police misconduct.” He said, “It’s not uncommon for prosecutors on one side of the prosecuting house to be working with law enforcement in their day-to-day operations, but on the other hand have a public corruption unit.”
He said he thinks there is a bigger question here. The question that he sees is that “there is no question that the credibility of the system is being put in question.” For that reason, he is taking several steps in office to rectify the situation in hopes of restoring credibility and public confidence.
They have created a task force to look into three of the key scandals. This he said, was a function of amount of work that came the way of the DA’s office.
When the text messaging scandal – involving the release of racist text messages – first came out, Mr. Gascon said they needed to look ten years back to see with whom these officers worked. The key question was “whether racial or homophobic bias played a key role in any of this activity.” Quickly the scope of the scandal widened, from the original four officers cited, to ten officers involving in the sending of those text messages.
A week later, he said, they learned through a media story that there was a problem with the DNA lab. Shortly thereafter, they also learned about the gladiator fights in the jail sponsored by sheriff’s deputies. “That created a workload issue for us where we could no longer investigate these cases under our normal structure,” he said. Normally they have a prosecution integrity unit, separated from the main department, who do not prosecute day-to-day cases. “There is a good reason for that, we do want to create a wall between the two,” he said.
That created the workload problem that led to create three teams to investigate the text messaging, the DNA lab, and the gladiator fights.
On the DNA Lab, he explained that DNA is a scientific process and, while lawyers who work on those cases may develop expertise, “they are not scientists.” He said, “We need to have best practices developed,” noting that it wasn’t long ago, when he was Chief of Police, that they had a different problem with that same lab.
He said, “I think more than the issue of who conducts the investigation,” that, moving forward, “I think there is a question of transparency and there is a question of faith in the system. Faith in the system has been shaken by many of the incidents we have seen across the nation… I believe some of the things that we need to do to bring back faith in the system is that we need to have transparency.”
Technology allows us to do things that we could not have done ten years ago. He talked about the ability to collect large databases of video and be able to store them. Cameras, he said have been around for over 20 years in police departments, but storing the video represented a major problem. Cameras are getting smaller and we can now store huge amounts of information.
Toward that end, he said, he sent a letter to the mayor and the Board of Supervisors requesting two things. He said he supports the President’s Commission recommendation to have body cameras on all police officers and he is asking the mayor to fund, no later than January 1, 2016, “body cameras for every San Francisco Police Officer to ensure that every transaction with the public is recorded.”
Mr. Gascon stated, “I believe that the majority of police officers are honest, hardworking men and women and this is something that they would welcome because it protects them as well as it protects the public.”
“Transparency,” he said. “When we do things in the open everyone is protected, the community is protected, our police officers are protected. That is why I am hoping that the mayor and the board will take this to heart.”
He urged them to stop playing games, noting that they have been talking about cameras for the police department for over a year “and yet we still don’t have them.” Oakland has been using cameras and has a good protocol for their use.
He said, “This is not new.” But the next part is new. It is not being done anywhere on a regular basis.
“Effective July 1 of 2016 I want every arrest conducted by San Francisco Police officer to be accompanied with video from that arrest,” he said. Mr. Gascon explained that not only would it facilitate the work of the prosecutor and defense attorneys in court, but it would foster further transparency with the public.
The technology to do that now exists and he asked for the funding to make sure that they have the technical support to handle that material. If video is not available, he said, “We want a supervisory explanation as to why not.”
He noted that there could be equipment malfunction but “that should happen very rarely.”
George Gascon also called for better data sharing in the system. “We have problems today – we can’t even tell you how many Hispanics are being arrested within in this county with any degree of certainly because currently most of our police information is recorded as either black, white, or others.”
“I don’t know about you, but I don’t like to think of myself as an ‘other’ because I am not an ‘other.’” He added, “We have a very diverse community where large segments of population are neither black nor white. We cannot accurately assess the impact of the entire system and the entire community unless we have good data.”
Sheriff Mirkarimi Speaks
San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi was in political hot water even before revelations came out regarding his deputies training inmates to gladiator-style fight in the San Francisco County Jail. Public Defender Jeff Adachi on Wednesday pointed out that many of the officers involved in this incident had previous disciplinary issues.
Sheriff Mirkarimi noted that they are the first jail system that will be bringing in body cameras. “Why that’s news is that … there was applause with the notion of greater transparency of law enforcement on the street to be equipped with body cameras in response to Ferguson and Staten Island and all the other upticks that [we] were riveted by.” he said.
But the President’s task force on community-orientated policing wasn’t “talking about the prisons and jails, there was literally nothing on their menu for community policing that extends to prisons and jails which to me is like flying a one-way aircraft that doesn’t fly – it’s myopic when you consider the amount of contact that law enforcement has with people who have previously been implicated in the criminal justice system – those experiences and exchanges do become at many times flashpoints themselves.”
He said, “In my opinion what makes this conversation much more full is that there should be a national and state and local requirement that those who work in prisons and those who work in jails also be equipped with body cameras.”
The sheriff noted that when he was a member of the SF County Board of Supervisors, in response to the drug lab schedule, they pushed for greater transparency and to not allow either the drug lab or the DNA lab under the auspices of the San Francisco Police Department. “The National Academy of Sciences had issued a report back in 2010 that said drug labs and crime labs should not be part of a partisan jurisdiction under law enforcement.”
They had legislation to separate them, he noted that Jeff Adachi testified to the need to separate them, but others came to lobby against it “and the bill got killed by the Board of Supervisors.”
The sheriff talked about the rigorous hiring process that they have now. But he said, “I was concerned when we’re hearing more and more about the bias, the overt bias and how that translates to the misdeeds and misconduct by peace officers on the street and how also that might mess inside of our county jail system.”
“My worry is that what happens when you have a careerist inside where there isn’t the flagging of somebody along the course of their five or ten or fifteen or twenty year career until there is a problem and a system that should react to it to snuff it out,” he said.
The sheriff also said that there needs to be a better mechanism “in holding supervisors (in the jail) accountable not just a grievance or complaint system that when something that happens to an inmate, that that complaint is processed just based on the complaint itself,” he said, rather than looking into whether they were enabled by the chain of command that may have turned their back. “We’ve heard of the thin blue line on the outside and on the streets, but don’t think that that doesn’t exist on the inside in prisons and jails.”
Sheriff Mirkarimi said that he heard about the staged fights from Public Defender Jeff Adachi. He said, “The gravity of it is not that I don’t trust the DA to not do a proper job, it’s just that I believe in San Francisco, that needs to make sure that the integrity of the investigation needs to be completely uninterrupted and unfettered from any kind of incestuous politics or any kind of missteps that have not occurred in the past.”
He said, based on this, he reached out to the federal government. “I was glad that they granted my request,” he said. “This has not happened in modern history in San Francisco unless it has been court imposed or federally imposed that the feds come in. So an investigation is underway.”
“The severity of our response I think sends a proper message,” he said. He said he hopes this will discourage future deputies from misstepping in the future. He also wants to send the message “that we’re serious about any kind of abuse, exceeding one’s jurisdiction or authority, unbecoming of the color of being a peace officer that under our administration or anybody, that we will not settle for this whatsoever.”
He said he is completely focused on these police reforms going through. “I don’t think it’s just about body cameras,” he said. “I don’t think it’s just about pronouncements by electeds or department heads, I believe it’s about political will.”
He said when he came into the office, he came into the office as “an independent reformer.” He understood that this would not be popular with his staff, but he wanted to push through these kinds of reforms.
Sheriff Mirkarimi asked for the same types of reforms for street cops to be implemented for those inside of jails –with training for crisis intervention to deal with the types of individuals and situations they are likely to encounter.
“When I asked the Mayor and the Board of Supervisors to consider the same level of upgrades that they’re doing for the SFPD, that should be mirrored by our expectations of the sheriff’s department then what we’re doing is a more fluid reform system,” he said. He warned, “Quit treating like these are enhancements, San Francisco doesn’t need it, we’re liberal, we’re progressive, it happens everywhere else – I don’t buy it.”
“I don’t think our city’s immune to any of the problems and flashpoints we’re seeing around the country, I just think that we’re good-hearted enough and smart enough that we can try to nip it in the bud from it getting any worse,” he said.