Despite reforms, we have a Police Department that is struggling to overcome credibility and morale problems
By Harry Britt, Matt Gonzalez, and Aaron Peskin
OPINION Given the escalating scandals in the San Francisco Police Department, the time is ripe to appoint a police commissioner who understands the recurring problems and the need for reform.
The supervisors have the opportunity to appoint such a commissioner: David Waggoner. Waggoner's extensive background in policy reform, community policing, and criminal justice issues will be a valuable asset to the commission.
Waggoner has worked as a pro bono attorney before the Oakland Civilian Police Review Board and has earned the respect and admiration of people from highly diverse political and social backgrounds. His integrity and sense of justice and fairness inspire trust and confidence — and frankly, we could use a lot more of that in this city.
Credibility with historically marginalized communities — including people of color, new immigrants, the homeless, people with disabilities and the LGBT community — is essential in developing the kind of mutual respect that makes the department's work effective or even possible. David Waggoner has that credibility.
In 2003, in response to years of strained relations between the SFPD and the community, the voters approved Proposition H. Prop. H gave the Police Commission more authority to adjudicate cases of officer misconduct and changed the makeup of the commission by giving the board three appointments to balance the mayor's four.
Despite these significant steps toward reform, eight years later we have a Police Department that is under investigation by the Justice Department and the FBI and struggling to overcome serious credibility and morale problems.
Case in point: in the last year alone, the department's credibility was undermined by a major crime lab scandal, the disclosure of Fourth Amendment violations in SRO hotels, use of excessive force on the mentally ill, and widespread withholding of evidence of officer misconduct from attorneys. These scandals resulted in the dismissal of hundreds of cases.
A number of outstanding policy issues remain in need of serious attention. In 2005, the Civil Grand Jury published a report on compensation in the Police Department, finding that officers receive greater salary increases than other city employees while San Francisco is in a state of fiscal stress. In 2007, the grand jury recommended filling significant numbers of desk jobs with civilians. When the department finally rolled out a pilot program this year, it called for only 15 civilians.
The San Francisco Police Department needs to improve its training of officers, including fostering a respect for the civil liberties that San Franciscans cherish. This should be basic to all police work. However, last year San Francisco paid $11.5 million in lawsuits because of police misconduct.
San Francisco needs police commissioners who understand the challenges of police work but who also are willing to explore the nature of endemic problems that have led to embarrassing scandals. We need commissioners who have a broader understanding of criminal justice policy and how it can be changed to promote public safety.
We join with the San Francisco La Raza Lawyers Association, Community United Against Violence, the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club, and a host of other elected officials, community activists, attorneys, and local leaders in wholeheartedly supporting the appointment of David Waggoner to the San Francisco Police Commission. It's about time.
Harry Britt is a former president of the Board of Supervisors and the author of the landmark 1982 legislation that created the Office of Citizen Complaints. Matt Gonzalez is chief attorney in the Public Defender's Office, a former president of the Board of Supervisors, and a co-sponsor of Prop. H. Aaron Peskin is chair of the San Francisco Democratic Party, a former president of the Board of Supervisors, and a co-sponsor of Prop H.