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Monday, April 22, 2024

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News + PoliticsMayor Lee faces questions on police violence -- and...

Mayor Lee faces questions on police violence — and has no real answers

Mayor has nothing but carefully prepared remarks that avoid responsibility for the crisis in his police department

Mayor Ed Lee was forced to answer a series of questions about his embattled police chief and department today, and he took the opportunity to obfuscate, duck, and refuse to deal with the most serious issues.

Mayor Lee talks with reporters after the board meeting
Mayor Lee talks with reporters after the board meeting

The supes “question time,” which is usually a scripted farce, actually turned into a semblance of what it was always intended to be today. The supes, in response to the recent police protests and the scathing report from a blue-ribbon panel on police practices, suspended the silly rules that prevent real back-and-forth and allowed board members to ask questions that hadn’t been pre-screened by the Mayor’s Office.

So Lee had to respond to concerns about the SFPD – and for the most part, he didn’t say anything remotely useful.

That happened again when I asked him the direct question after the meeting: How can all the new policies you talk about work when the cops don’t pay attention to the existing policies?

Lee first read from prepared remarks. “Across the country, there is a crisis of trust between communities and law enforcement,” he said. “Unfortunately that is happening here too.”

He then complained that “last week’s property damage and violence went too far.” Umm… the violence was largely on the part of law-enforcement, and at least some of the property damage – particularly to the metal detector – wasn’t caused by protesters but by sheriff’s deputies dragging and pushing people toward the doors.

He talked about all of the reviews of the department, about “rebuilding trust,” and how he is allocating another $17 million to the Police Department for violence-prevention and reform programs.

At no point did he mention accountability, or say that anyone in the department leadership might have done anything wrong.

Under the current board rules, all questions for the mayor have to be submitted in advance, so his staff can script a response. But if eight supes vote to suspend the rules, an actual conversation can happen.

And with the support of Board President London Breed, that’s what the board agreed to do – mostly, with a few weird glitches.

Sups. Mark Farrell and Scott Wiener spoke up to oppose any sort of real questioning of the mayor. Farrell said the board was heading down a “slippery slope” (to where? Honest questions for the mayor?) Wiener said all of the questions could have been submitted in advance (which, of course, would turn the meeting back into a pre-scripted play).

But when Breed said she wanted to ask a question, she got eight votes (Farrell, Wiener, and Katy Tang dissenting). Breed asked what was on a lot of people’s minds: “The community is hurting,” she said. “Where does this end?”

Lee simply re-read his opening statement, adding nothing. The end-game, he said, would be “the community coming together.” I’d say the evidence on the streets is that the community’s not coming anywhere close to together.

Sup. Eric Mar talked about the Public Defender’s Racial Justice Committee and asked the mayor if he would support that group’s recommendation, which include moving the budget of the Office of Citizen Complaints out of the Police Commission and asking the US Justice Department to conduct a civil-rights investigation to see if anyone in the SFPD ought to be held legally accountable for racist actions.

Lee: “I will review every one of those recommendations.”

Sup. David Campos then tried to ask a question about the findings of the District Attorney’s blue-ribbon panel, which issued a scathing report on the SFPD yesterday. But in an odd, almost inexplicable move, Sup. Malia Cohen joined the other three mayoral allies in refusing to allow the question. Breed and Mar got to ask theirs; Cohen blocked Campos from his. In the end, Campos had to ask the board to rescind that vote and convince Cohen to go along with what turned out to be a very reasonable question:

“The panel,” he said, “reached a finding of a lack of oversight and accountability.” In the recent officer-involved shootings, he said, “not a single officer has been terminated.” And the report shows “100 percent increase in the number of officer-involved shootings” in 2015.

His question: Would the mayor agree to allocate $1.9 million to set up an independent office under the district attorney to review police shootings?

Lee: The DA can do that already. Why don’t we wait until all the current investigations are completed.

Campos asked about the message that gets sent when the mayor is happy to put up another $17 million for the police, but not a fraction of that for independent investigations of the police. The mayor had nothing to say.

Lee left the Board chambers in a scrum of sheriff’s deputies, far more security than he typically has after Question Time. In fact, all of City Hall was on high alert – the main entrance was blocked off all day, although the only demonstration out front was a peaceful rally in favor of expanding the Sanctuary City law. There were no Frisco Five events, no protestors trying to get into the Board meeting … really, nothing to justify the shutdown.

The sidewalks in front of Mission Station were still blocked off, too, although nobody was trying to protest there.

A few reporters still managed to stop the mayor, who said he felt like “Steph Curry – I’m tired.” I got in my question:

What good will all of these reforms and new policies do if we have a climate in the department where officers can violate the existing rules and nothing happens? Why have no officers faced any discipline in the recent shootings?

Lee: “You have the DA doing at least three investigations.” He also mentioned the Justice Department review of the SFPD.

But the DA is only looking at whether an officer did something so bad that it violates the law something he can take to a jury. Chief Greg Suhr can discipline or fire an officer for violating department policy – which pretty clearly happened in at least some of these shootings.

And the Justice Department investigation will not, and was not designed to, hold anyone accountable. It’s basically a performance audit.

So: When will anyone be held accountable for violating department policies? The mayor wouldn’t say.

My friend and colleague Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez asked the mayor about the clear allegation in the blue-ribbon report that the Police Officers Association was running the department. Lee said that “we have some differences” with the POA, but vowed to “continue the dialogue.”

“Some differences” seems a bit mild, considering that the POA has bitterly fought every reasonable reform that anyone has tried to do.

Then Lee dashed back to his office, surrounded by a phalanx of cops that none of us could get through.

There were, by the way, no demonstrators on hand when the mayor left the Board chambers. Nobody was there to meet him except reporters. There was no visible threat anywhere in the building.


So back to the Board meeting, where we got some bizarre arguments about a plan to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote.

The case for this is pretty clear – getting young people to register and vote while they are still part of the San Francisco community, before they go off to college or jobs somewhere else (which tend to be a distraction), will encourage lifelong participation in democracy.

Sup. Scott Wiener, who initially was dubious about the idea, has come around and pointed out that many of the biggest problems facing the world, the nation, and the city today are things that the older voters among us will leave to our kids: Global climate change, social security, inadequate infrastructure … it makes sense to allow the people who are going to have to deal will all of this to have some say in it.

But it got strange when Sup. Malia Cohen started arguing that 16-year-olds are too young to be responsible enough to vote. After all, she said, the board just voted to ban the sale of tobacco products to people under 21. And maybe the criminal justice system will decide that if young people can vote, they need to be tried as adults.

“That,” Sup. John Avalos told me, “is the first time I’ve ever heard a correlation between voting and incarceration.”

Wiener had a good answer for the tobacco policy: Public health studies show that tobacco has a much greater negative impact on young people than on older people. Start smoking at 16 and you are far more likely to be addicted than if you start at 25. The physical harm is greater, too.

None of this has anything to do with voting.

Cohen also said “our lives are full of transitions,” mentioning marriage as something that could, like leaving home at 18, interfere with voting. That is the first time I’ve ever heard anyone say that getting married discourages people from registering to vote.

Sup. Norman Yee noted that until 1971, the voting age in the US was 21. People said that allowing 18-year-olds to vote would be a horrible idea, he said – but history, as is so often the case, proved them wrong.

In the end, the supes voted 9-2 to place the matter on the November ballot, where only adults will be allowed to decide if younger people can vote.

A measure to tighten the Sanctuary City provisions was continued for two weeks, as Avalos, the sponsor, wanted more time to negotiate with the sheriff, who wants more leeway to turn immigrants who are in the city jail over to the feds for deportation.

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Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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