by Alan Schlosser
Today, the ACLU of Northern California and the ACLU Disability Rights Program sent a letter to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) urging a federal pattern and practice investigation into the SFPD for systemic civil rights violations, including the killing of Mario Woods, a young Black disabled man. Mario’s death at the hands of police on Dec. 2, 2015 is unfortunately only one instance of the long-standing and deep-rooted failures in the workings of the SFPD, especially as it interacts with communities of color, Black people in particular, and people with disabilities.
We join our voices to the calls made by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee; the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; activists; and John Burris, the attorney for Mario Woods’ mother.
The Department of Justice has the unique tools and authority to independently investigate the SFPD. Only the federal government can put in motion the systemic change that the SFPD’s failures require, through enforceable deadlines and independent oversight.
We must address the myriad systemic issues at play to make sure that a horrific police killing like the death of Mario Woods never happens again in this city.
San Francisco is not immune to racism or abuse of people with disabilities. Community pressure and tireless organizing by Black leaders have helped remind the City that we need outside help to truly address the crisis of the SFPD’s failures.
These ingrained problems include:
- Excessive use of deadly force against young men of color
- Ample evidence of the persistent presence of racial bias
- Failure to train and supervise officers to use crisis intervention and de-escalation strategies in dealing with people with disabilities
- Fundamental lack of accountability throughout the SFPD and its oversight agencies
As our letter states:
As horrific as the shooting of Mario Woods is in isolation, people and public officials in San Francisco saw it in a context which made it even more alarming. Since 2000, SFPD officers have shot at least 103 people – 37 have died. In each of the 37 deaths, the Department found that the use of force was within policy and merited no discipline.
A 2014 analysis found that more than half of 19 individuals killed by San Francisco police between 2005 and January 2014 – 11 out of 19 – had a mental illness.
In its internal review of the [police shooting of Teresa Sheehan, a woman in psychiatric crisis,] San Francisco found the shooting to be “in policy.” The Department still does not have a policy requiring crisis intervention and de-escalation strategies for persons with psychiatric disabilities subject to involuntary detention.
In 2013, black adults in San Francisco were 6 percent of the population, yet 40 percent of the people arrested, 44 percent of people jailed and 40 percent of people convicted. Black adults are 7 times as likely as whites to be arrested. And this disproportionality has significantly grown in the last twenty years.
However, nothing has been more illuminating than the uncovering in April of 2015 of a series of venomous and hateful text messages exchanged between SFPD officers. These messages only came to light as a result of a federal criminal prosecution. The messages contained a series of racist and homophobic comments, characterizing black people as dangerous in the most insulting terms possible, including a liberal use of the “n” word. In the wake of the text disclosures, the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office launched a wide-ranging investigation that has apparently been met with stonewalling from the SFPD, and even failure to meet legal deadlines to provide public information.
These festering problems at the core of the SFPD show why any investigation that the DOJ conducts must address the SFPD’s workings as a whole in order to be effective.
San Francisco’s police need a pattern and practice investigation in order to move forward. San Francisco’s diverse communities need this investigation to do right by them. We all need a thorough investigation of the department’s systemic issues in order to heal.
Alan Schlosser is Senior Counsel with the ACLU of Northern California.
Editor’s note: On Thursday, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón complained that San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Police Chief Greg Suhr “refuse to cooperate with the district attorney’s efforts to investigate police misconduct and departmental culture — even as they claim to be committed to transparency and accountability in the wake of the fatal shooting of Mario Woods.”
The Chronicle obtained a letter from Mr. Gascón which suggested “the mayor is not serious about his recent pledge to make changes to build trust between the Police Department and communities of color. If Lee was serious, the letter read, he would have cooperated with Gascón’s efforts to investigate the department.”
The mayor “denied the very existence of the thousands of cases that had been called in to jeopardy,” Mr. Gascón wrote.
“If the promises you levied in your inauguration speech and in your letter to the Attorney General to repair the ‘dissolution of trust between communities of color and law enforcement’ are genuine, and if it will remain should the impassioned pleas from the community for reform fade in the months ahead, then I would ask that you demonstrate an actual commitment to these issues by taking steps now to support the existing investigation,” Mr. Gascón wrote. “These problems are far too serious and far too systemic to simply pay them lip service.”
After the mayor declined to fund the district attorney’s police misconduct task force, Mr. Gascón launched a blue ribbon panel to look into the culture and practices of the police department. However, he said in the letter that “the panel was having difficulty getting Suhr and other officers within the department to cooperate with the review.”
“The department and the police union have “engaged in a dizzying array of stonewalling tactics,” with Chief Suhr decreeing that all interviews with police officers must be done on personal time and demanding that the panel work through the police union,” Mr. Gascón said.
“This is not the type of transparency and collaboration we could expect from a department and a chief eager to improve,” Mr. Gascón said.
Mr. Gascón has asked the mayor to direct his police chief to cooperate with the panel. Mayor Ed Lee did call for a federal investigation into the police killing of Mario Woods and the practices of the police force, saying in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch that he was “inviting transparency and accountability” in a bid to repair frayed relations between law enforcement and people of color.
“The letter, dated Jan. 21 and released Monday, comes after weeks of community pressure and talk of reform after the Dec. 2 shooting of Woods in the Bayview neighborhood that drew public outcry after it was caught on videos that were posted on social media,” the Chronicle reported.