To try a cop

Will new commissioners and rules reduce SFPD's discipline backlog?

Police Chief George Gascon wants more authority to discipline or exonerate cops accused of misconduct

Proponents of civilian oversight for the San Francisco Police Department are hopeful that fresh blood on the Police Commission, along with a new set of rules designed to expedite disciplinary hearings, will improve the often-criticized, delay-plagued system of citizens policing cops.

The commission's backlog of pending cases — which at its worst ballooned to more than 70, with at least one more than nine years old — prompted massive media coverage in 2009; a San Francisco Chronicle editorial calling for the system to be reformed early this year; and former Police Commissioner and District 10 Candidate Theresa Sparks' recent statements to the Guardian that SFPD's civilian oversight system is "broken" and that the power to fire police officers should go to the chief.

As it stands now, SFPD Chief George Gascón can handle any case in which punishment will not exceed more than a 10-day suspension, whether initiated from within the department and investigated by the Management Control Division — SFPD's version of internal affairs — or resulting from complaints made by civilians through the Office of Citizen Complaints. The Police Commission must hold hearings for any case in which more severe discipline is recommended by either office.

"There are litigation delays that occur outside the control of the commission," OCC Director Joyce Hicks told the Guardian. Appeals to superior courts can indefinitely stall cases before the commission, she said.

The OCC has its own backlog of investigations, which Hicks primarily attributes to budget constraints. San Francisco's charter dictates that the OCC have one full-time investigator for every 150 SFPD officers. There are 2,317 sworn officers in the SFPD, according to the department's most recent citywide CompStat report, which means that the OCC should have at least 15.5 investigators. Hicks says she has 14, and that supervising investigators are taking on cases to pick up the slack. OCC's 2010 second-quarter report states that, due to budget constraints, the office will not be able to meet its full compliment of 17 front-line investigators.

"We do not have an adequate number of investigators for the size of our caseload," Hicks said. "We are working very hard with the Police Commission to reduce the backlog. But they have to be scheduled by the commission for us to prosecute them."

Hicks would like to see the number of investigators dictated by the number of complaints the OCC receives instead of the size of the SFPD, as a critical 2007 report by the Controller's Office suggested.

Police Commissioner Jim Hammer, who was appointed by the Board of Supervisors early this year and has been instrumental in crafting new rules to speed hearings before the commission, said he believes the current system is beginning to work better and will continue to improve with future tweaks.

"I would not be opposed to the chief having more authority to impose discipline as long as a civilian body has the authority to make the final check on it," he told the Guardian. "This isn't just about Chief Gascón — this is about the system. Someday there will be another chief."

A swelled backlog at the commission has real consequences for the city's available police force and overall budget. Despite numerous attempts, no one in SFPD's media relations unit, chief's office, personnel division, or MCD could provide the Guardian with the number of officers taken off active police duty to work a desk while their complaint cases stall before the Police Commission.

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