Police Commission meets behind closed doors on Tasers

Why is a lawyer who used to work for the police union now representing the Police Commission on its negotiations with the police union?

The Police Commission went into closed session to discuss Taser policy as a labor issue Wednesday, just a week after the defeat of Proposition H, the ballot measure backed by the officers’ union requiring the use of Tasers to happen sooner and with less restrictions.

The session with legal counsel came despite the fact that the commission agreed when it approved the new policy in March not to meet and discuss it with the Police Officers Association.

The lawyer who is now advising the commission, Deputy City Attorney Jonathan Yank, has a long history of working for the POA and other police unions, represented the POA in a lawsuit challenging the city’s right to fire an officer for misconduct, and was a partner in a firm that sued San Francisco on behalf of the cops who challenged the city’s use-of-force policy.

John Cote, spokesperson for Dennis Herrera, said that the situation created no conflict:
“There is no conflict of interest here. Jonathan Yank joined the City Attorney’s Office over two years ago, in May 2016. Of course, since joining the office, Jonathan has had no ongoing financial or attorney-client relationship with the POA. He is also not advising the Police Commission on matters where he previously represented the POA. As with all Deputy City Attorneys, Jonathan Yank’s client is the City and County of San Francisco.”

In May, 2016, Yank’s partner, Gregg Adam, was challenging the use of force policies andasserting the POA’s right to delay them.

John Crew, a longtime police-accountability activist and former police practices lawyer for the ACLU, noted:

“The question is whether assigning this task and this client to someone with Mr. Yank’s background raises legitimate concerns, whether there is an appearance of a conflict of interest, and whether the public (and probably some commissioners) will wonder about the quality of the legal advice the Police Commission will receive about the scope of its authority to set policy for the SFPD on crucial topics like use of force and proper uses of a weapon as dangerous as a taser without (needlessly) meeting and conferring behind closed doors with the POA.    

This is not about Mr. Yank personally or his integrity. It’s about both the reality and the optics of the situation he and the Police Commission have been put in by the City Attorney’s Office assigning him (of all people) to advise the Police Commission on matters involving his former client, firm, and close colleague, Mr. Adam.”

During the general public comment, one speaker, Magick Altman, who considers herself a citizen journalist, voiced concerns with introducing Tasers into the Police Department’s arsenal of weapons.

“To bring Tasers in now would destroy the trust between the community and the Commission which we were finally building around the use-of-force policy, de-escalation, and compassionate help.”

As the commission was about to go into closed session, Altman asked what was to be discussed in closed session about the use of Tasers and said she hoped it would be discussed publicly.

“Just so the record is clear it is a meet-and-confer related to labor related issues,” said Thomas Mazzucco, vice president, Police Commission.

“We wanted to not talk about Tasers until the other recommendations are put into place and evaluated,” Altman said after the meeting was in closed session.

The recommendations she is referring to are part of the 2016 evaluation conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice after the police shooting of Mario Woods. They made 272 recommendations including use-of-force policy and police accountability.

Although supporters of Taser use say that it will give police officers less lethal weapons to carry out their jobs, critics feel that these electronic control weapons may be abused and used disproportionately against disenfranchised communities.

After the meeting was back in open session, the commission voted to not disclose what had been discussed in closed session.

So: The public doesn’t know what advice a former POA lawyer gave to the commissioners about whether to negotiate Taser policy with the POA. Is that not something we should be concerned about?