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No more Idriss Stelleys

ON JUNE 13 , 2001, a woman named Summer Galbreath called 911 and asked the San Francisco police to come help her. She wasn't in any physical danger; her boyfriend, Idriss Stelley, was having a mental breakdown at the Sony Metreon theater complex, and she thought the police might be able to keep him from getting in a nasty fight with an usher. Stelley didn't have a gun, Galbreath told the police, "but he will try to fight back because he was diagnosed as being a borderline personality."

A few moments later Stelley was dead, shot 10 times by a phalanx of cops. His only weapon was a knife that his family describes as a "bamboo peeler" about two inches long.

The San Francisco Police Department has clamped a tight lid of secrecy on the case, refusing to release more than the most sketchy information about it. But under legal pressure from the Bay Guardian (see In This Issue, page 5), the department last week turned over the tape of the 911 calls from that day – and the evidence shows exactly why the cops are trying to cover this story up.

The SFPD has been under immense pressure over the past several years to reform the way officers handle mentally ill people – to prevent exactly the sort of senseless killing that occurred here. In fact, police brass agreed more than a year ago (well before the Stelley shooting) to launch a new training program called Police Crisis Intervention. And if the officers who responded to the Metreon 911 call had been through that program, Idriss Stelley might well be alive today. But the training has been slow to get under way, and only a small number of officers have graduated.

That needs to change – quickly. One out of every four calls received by the SFPD involves a person in mental distress; handling those situations without resorting to deadly force should be a high priority. The Board of Supervisors (which has fully funded the training program) should hold a hearing and demand an update: Why haven't more than a handful of cops learned how to defuse Idriss Stelley-type conflicts instead of shooting people who need psychiatric help? What's the delay?

The supervisors – and City Attorney Dennis Herrera and the Police Commission – should also look into the SFPD's policies on disclosing information to the public and force the department to follow consistent policies, in compliance with the letter and spirit of the Sunshine Ordinance. If a civilian had shot someone at the Metreon last June, the suspect's name and every last gory detail about the crime would long since have been handed over to the press – and the case would be heading to trial. When guns or drugs are confiscated from civilians, they're proudly displayed for the world to see. But the press and public still can't even get the names of the officers involved in this incident, much less view the two-inch "knife" that Stelley was supposedly brandishing in such a menacing way that the cops on the scene had no choice but to shoot him to death. The only possible explanation: the police are protecting their own.

Until this lack of training and accountability ends, it's almost certain that the tragedy of Idriss Stelley will be repeated.