Editorial: Fixing police discipline in San Francisco

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San Francisco has long operated under the proposition that civilians, not police officers, should conduct investigations of complaints against cops

Editorial: San Francisco's new police chief wants more authority to discipline problem officers. He's been talking about it since the day he arrived, and he's getting some political traction. Sup. David Chiu has called for a hearing in the next few weeks, and it's likely that the chief will seek a Charter Amendment next year to redefine how the top cop and Police Commission handle personnel issues.

We have no problem giving the chief the right to fire a bad cop. In fact, if George Gascón wants to quickly rid the force of the small number of violent and unprofessional officers who are responsible for most of the serious discipline problems, more power to him.

But Gascón isn't stopping there — he wants to reduce the power of the commission and possibly the Office of Citizen Complaints. And that's a very bad idea.

Police discipline is one of the biggest problems facing the force. The city has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars in lawsuit settlements in police abuse cases. Rogue cops have beaten, harassed, intimidated, and sometimes killed innocent people. And because so few officers ever face serious penalties, the bad behavior goes on unabated.

Gascón recognizes that. He told us in an interview in October that he thinks there are 10 cops on the force who ought to be fired, right now. That would send a powerful message: in the past 20 years, fewer than five police officers have ever been fired for misconduct.

Right now only the Police Commission can terminate an officer; the most the chief can issue on his own is a 10-day suspension. And there's a huge backlog of discipline cases. That's partly the result of the system itself — commissioners are part-time appointees and discipline hearings are time-consuming. It's also partly the fault of the department — previous chiefs have shown little interest in expediting discipline cases and have worked to thwart the ability of the Office of Citizen Complaints to complete investigations.