POA gambles and loses
Recent events and polling data show once-powerful police union has lost political clout

By Steven T. Jones and Sitara Nieves

It appears the San Francisco Police Officers Association may not have as much political power as many believe, judging from its failed effort to force District Attorney Kamala Harris to pursue the death penalty for an accused cop killer, the reform positions taken by the new Police Commission, and polling data that has been obtained by the Bay Guardian.

The POA's aggressive and high-profile campaign to seek the execution of Officer Isaac Espinoza's accused killer won some high-profile supporters – including California's two U.S. senators – but Harris refused to back down, and she won support from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the San Francisco Bar Association, and others. Then, Attorney General Bill Lockyer – who had agreed to review the case at the POA's request – announced June 8 that he wouldn't intervene.

POA president Gary Delagnes (who didn't return our calls for comment) told a bank of TV cameras during the May 25 Board of Supervisors meeting that the association's members would try to unseat the supervisors who had voted to support Harris's decision, which includes all of them except Sups. Fiona Ma and Gerardo Sandoval (both voted no, and neither returned our calls for comment on the polling data) and Tony Hall (who was absent).

Yet polling done during last year's district attorney's race by a prominent San Francisco pollster indicates those are the only three supervisors who would have much to fear from POA opposition, while many of the other eight supervisors would actually benefit from being seen as an opponent of the POA.

San Francisco residents who were asked, "Would you be more or less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed by the POA?" were split fairly evenly, with around 30 percent on each side and the rest saying it wouldn't make a difference. By way of contrast, endorsements from the less-controversial city firefighters' union drew 35.7 percent in support and 13.3 percent in opposition. But the real story is in how the POA poll numbers break down in each of the 11 supervisorial districts.

Police support carries the most weight in Ma's District 4 (47.7 percent favor a candidate with police support, and 15.9 percent oppose) and Sandoval's District 11 (37.5 percent and 17.5 percent), followed by Hall's District 7 (39.4 percent and 24 percent), Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier's District 2 (32.8 percent and 24.6 percent) and Sup. Jake McGoldrick's District 1 (26 percent and 20 percent). In the other six districts, more respondents were inclined to oppose the POA's candidates than support them.

In some districts, opposition to the POA is quite strong. Respondents could modify their positions with the word "strongly," and the two highest percentages of what politicos call this "intensity factor" came in Matt Gonzalez's District 5 and Chris Daly's District 6, where 23.4 percent and 31.4 percent of respondents, respectively, would "strongly oppose" the POA's choice. The next strongest opinions were the 22.7 percent of Ma's constituents who would "strongly support" the POA and the 22.2 percent of Peskin's District 3 voters who would "strongly oppose" the POA's pick.

Meanwhile, the POA and the San Francisco Police Department have also lost clout with the newly reformulated Police Commission, which has broken with tradition to take actions that run counter to the POA's wishes, most notably in forcing the department to release the names of the police officers who fatally shot motorist Cammerin Boyd on May 5 (see "Cops vs. Community," 5/12/04).

The SFPD on June 1 named the officers involved in the shooting: William Elieff, Gregory Kane, James O'Malley, Timothy Paine, and Steven Stearns. The San Francisco Chronicle reported June 2 that four of these five officers have been involved in a total of 38 "use of force" incidents in recent years, the majority of which caused injuries. Yet the SFPD press release also tried to further justify the shooting by making claims inconsistent with accounts that witnesses have given to us and other media outlets, even as the department has refused to release details or reports about the incidents. That press release drew condemnation from the commission during its June 2 meeting.

"We all found it disturbing, particularly after what we had been talking about in the Police Commission with the police command over the past three weeks," Commissioner Peter Keane told us.

Commissioners had criticized the SFPD after Boyd's shooting for releasing his criminal history to the media and for allowing officers to tell journalists just hours after the shooting that Boyd's death was justified, fueling the mistrust that many community members feel for the department.

"When [the police commissioners] originally talked to the police department and to command, everyone agreed that they were dismayed these statements were put out after the shooting, saying it was justified," Keane told us. "They agreed with us, saying they would make sure it wouldn't happen again – and then the same thing happens again."

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