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City HallThe AgendaPolice chief undermines his own department's reform agenda

Police chief undermines his own department’s reform agenda

Bill Scott voided an MOU that was a key part of a federal-level effort to improve accountability; will the commission let this stand?

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In a sudden and stunning move last week, Police Chief Bill Scott just undermined his own department’s efforts at reform, helped the campaign to recall the district attorney, and, one Police Commission member says, sought to interfere with the prosecution of a cop who is on trial for brutality.

And he did it without the prior approval of the Police Commission.

The issue will come up at the commission meeting Wednesday/9, and the outcome will speak volumes about whether the panel is serious about its job.

Chief Bill Scott sided with the POA on a critical reform issue.

The SF Standard has a solid story by Michael Barba that lays out a lot of the background, although the headline—and the headlines in the rest of the major news media—misses the point.

This isn’t just, or even primarily, a “war” between the police chief and the district attorney. In fact, DA Chesa Boudin has almost never criticized Chief Bill Scott during his tenure.

No: This is about the San Francisco Police Officers Association, the widely discredited operation that defends rogue and sometimes killer cops, pushing its weight around and trying to undermine a fundamental reform that can help hold cops accountable.

And it’s about whether the Police Commission is willing to hold the chief accountable.

Here’s the background: For years, the DA’s Office has failed to prosecute police officers who have beaten or killed people in violation of the law. Part of that has been the reluctance of former DAs—including Kamala Harris, who is now of course vice president, and George Gascon, who is now the DA of Los Angeles—to take on the cops.

Part of the problem has also been that the cops investigate their own violations; that is, if a cop shoots someone, it’s the cops—their colleagues in the SFPOA—who collect the evidence.

It’s not terribly surprising that the evidence collection often leads to exonerations for police officers.

So with the support and involvement of the Police Commission, the chief and the DA signed a memorandum of understanding that gave DA investigators (many of whom trained at the Police Academy) the primary responsibility for investigating police shootings and killings.

Last week, on the eve of the first trial under Boudin’s administration of a police officer for criminal misconduct, the chief has unilaterally said that he’s withdrawing from the MOU.

He said that because an investigator with the DA’s Office alleges that she was under pressure to keep out of her report information that might have helped exonerate the officer, Terrance Stangel.

Stangel is charged with brutally beating a Black man, Decari Spiers, near Fisherman’s Wharf in 2019.

Lawyers for the cop say that he was responding to a domestic violence case, and that Spiers was assaulting his girlfriend. Both parties involved say the two were embracing and kissing. Spiers was never charged with domestic violence.

But a cop lawyer said in court last week that the DA investigator had a witness who said there was domestic violence involved, and that information never made it into the final report. The investigator said that Boudin’s office pressured her not to report those details, but didn’t identify anyone specifically saying anything to her about the case. It was just “my general understanding,” she said.

The judge in the case, Teresa Caffese, was not impressed: She said that there was absolutely no evidence that any witness information had been suppressed. From the Chron:

Judge Caffese noted that it appeared both police and the District Attorney’s Office had the same statements from the witness, and that the follow-up interview with the witness provided no new information.

“What I’m not hearing here is that there was any evidence suppressed,” Caffese said.

The Davis Vanguard has an interview with Spiers’ lawyer that gives some more perspective.

Still, Chief Scott is using this to say that a long-sought and effective reform program is going to end.

His comments are being used to fuel the efforts to recall Boudin. And one commissioner says it’s even worse.

At the Police Commission meeting Feb. 2, Commissioner John Hamasaki asked Scott why he decided to withdraw from the MOU just a few days before the Stangle case went to trial. “You want to put out propaganda, press releases, to muddy the waters,” Hamasaki said. “You had an MOU that was been worked on by this commission … and you unilaterally issue a press release. I have never seen a more, what appears to be a clear case of tampering with a jury, from a police chief. This is outrageous.”

Hamasaki made the most important point: “We are also signatories to this MOU, and in the end, your job comes through us … how does it look to the public when it appears the police chief is trying to interfere with a jury trial?”

The MOU is a pretty big deal: When the Obama-era Justice Department was brought in to recommend changes for the SFPD, one of the recommendations was that the DA’s Office take the lead in investigating police violence. In fact, Scott’s department itself in 2020 cited the MOU as evidence that the SFPD was complying with the recommendations.

The chief made his move just as the POA was considering a vote of no confidence in his administration. That has now been put on hold.

When the voters expanded the size of the Police Commission in 2003, and split the appointments between the mayor and the supes, they also specifically gave the commission the authority to direct, and if necessary fire, the police chief. “We have decided that it’s critical to have direct, clear civilian oversight over the Police Department,” John Crew, a longtime police-accountability lawyer and advocate, told me.

Among the people who signed a ballot argument for Prop. H that year was a candidate for district attorney who is now the vice president of the United States. Kamala Harris, along with DA Terence Hallinan, both supported the plan.

If they members of the panel are serious about that role, they will need to make it clear that the chief answers to them—and that they get to decide whether this MOU stays in place.

The hearing starts at 5:30pm. You can get information about how to watch and comment here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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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