Police Chief Bill Scott’s argument that he had to drop out of a critical reform measure because the District Attorney’s Office was withholding information from him is looking more and more shaky.
At the Police Commission meeting Wednesday night, Max Carter-Oberstone, who was appointed by Mayor London Breed, directly challenged the chief over a federal judge’s ruling that the cops were withholding evidence in the same case that he had complained about.
In a March 2 ruling, Magistrate Judge Jacqueline Scott Corley took the unusual step of sanctioning the Police Department for failing to turn over important evidence in a civil case filed by Dacari Spiers.
Background: After Police Officer Terrance Stangel beat him so badly he had to be hospitalized, Spiers sued the city. After an embarrassing attempt by Sup. Catherine Stefani to block the deal, the supes agreed to settle the case for $700,000.
Scott has used the alleged failure of the DA’s Office to provide the cops with information about the Stangel case as grounds to pull out of a memorandum of understanding that put the DA in charge of investigations of police shootings. This has been a huge deal, and since it’s been in place, cops have shot a lot fewer people.
But the POA is furious at Boudin, and the evidence is pretty clear that Scott decided to pull out of the MOU the day before the POA was going to hold a vote on no-confidence in his leadership.
So: Scott decides that what a judge called a rather minor and unimportant issue of disclosure is grounds to undermine critical reforms—while in fact his own department has committed what another judge says is a pretty serious breach of the same type of rules.
Judge Scott Corley was responding to a complaint by Spiers’ lawyers, who said that they had learned (from another lawsuit against the city) that the SFPD had failed to turn over important evidence in the Spiers suit.
The judge had little patience with the city:
The Court finds that Defendant the City and County of San Francisco, acting through SFPD, engaged in conduct tantamount to bad faith. There is no dispute that Defendant did not disclose the evidence to their own counsel until the December 14, 2021 deposition. And the failure to disclose was not inadvertent; it was part of an admitted SFPD policy.
This is all a bit complicated, but the bottom line is simple: The cops under Chief Scott did what the chief complained about the DA doing, in the same case—but the cops did much worse. Not by mistake, but as a matter of policy.
Carter-Oberstone wanted to know why.
“The order finds that the department willfully withheld a whole slew of evidence,” he said. “The judge described this as “reckless.”
He noted that it’s highly unusual for a court to issue sanctions against a party in a case like this. “It only happens in extreme cases of misconduct … this is very serious.”
You have been very public in the press about how incredibly inappropriate the DA’s failure was to hand over certain documents although a judge decided those documents were immaterial. Now the department is being sanctioned for what a federal judge calls reckless behavior for failure to hand over a lot of really important documents. The public need to understand ow this happened in a department that has been vociferous in its outrage over failure to hand over documents. I think the people deserve an answer; this is a pretty big deal.
Scott’s response: He didn’t know anything about this, just learned about it that afternoon, and would talk to the city attorney and get back to the commission next week.
Two possible takeaways:
Chief Scott really didn’t know that his subordinates were engaged in what a federal judge said was clearly inappropriate and reckless behavior—which suggests he isn’t on top of what’s happening in the department—or he did know, and did nothing about it.
Neither one looks terribly good.
The other takeaway: Some members of this Police Commission are tired of the misinformation and scandals, and are willing to push back.
The next question: Will the officers who, according to a federal judge, recklessly withheld information in a legal case face any consequences? Will the policy that they say they were following be changed?
And will the commission insist that it happens?