Reporting by Sarah Phelan. Photograhy by Luke Thomas.
At the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office’s May 18 Justice Summit, the ethics of law enforcement were a central topic. And not surprisingly, the latest incidents of alleged police conduct in which SFPD officers are caught on surveillance video, which the Public Defender’s Office released, as they apparently steal personal property from suspects whose homes in the Julian Hotel they searched for drugs under possibly illegal circumstances, were on everyone’s minds, along with the crime lab and Henry Hotel scandals.
Asked if District Attorney George Gascón, who was Chief of Police until January, is considering a special prosecutor to look into these latest incidents, Sharon Woo, the D.A.’s Chief Assistant of Operations, said the D.A. looks into each case as it comes in. "We are trying to enhance the videos that came in from the Public Defender’s Office,” Woo said in a pre-summit interview. “Some are not as clear as we’d like.”
Earlier this year, when Gascón first became aware of the allegations against officers at the Henry Hotel, he directed the D.A.’s office to open an investigation into the officers and their alleged conduct. The move got David Onek, who is running against Gascón in the D.A.’s race, urging Gascón to turn the investigation over to an independent prosecutor.
But for a week, Gascón maintained that there was no conflict, and when he did finally announce that he was turning the investigation over to the to the U.S. Attorney’s Office – he claimed it was about “resources”. “New information has come to light that indicates it is better to turn over this investigation to the FBI,” Gascón said. “I have spoken to the U.S. Attorney, Melinda Haag, and she has agreed to take over the full investigation. We will of course cooperate fully with the FBI, and provide whatever assistance they need from us."
At the time, Onek noted that Gascón’s decision was correct step. But he criticized Gascón for not making it his policy to recuse himself from any investigations that relate to his own tenure as chief. And Alameda Assistant D.A. Sharmin Bock, who recently sprung into the D.A.’ race, described Gascón’s situation on this matter as being “between a rock and a hard place.”
But yesterday, Woo noted that while it’s true that Gascón was SFPD Chief when many of the recent misconduct scandals occurred, Mayor Gavin Newsom had already appointed him D.A. when the Julian Hotel incidents occurred in February.
And Peter Herley, former chief of the Tiburon Police Department, told the Guardian that there “is always the Attorney General” to refer cases if D.A.’s feel conflicted. "George Gascón is a very upstanding individual who has also worked for the Los Angeles Police Department and was Chief of Meza, Arizona, and has done a good job in every place he’s been,” Herley said during a pre-summit interview. "So, if he sees a conflict arise, he’d probably recuse himself. It’s the public perception that’s key, that’s paramount."
During the summit’s panel on ethics, retired San Francisco Superior Court judge Lee Baxter grilled panelists with incisive questions—as befits any self-respecting judge, retired or otherwise--on whether police misconduct is the product of a departmental culture. Noting that there had been a seemingly non-stop string of alleged police misconduct scandals in the Bay Area from drug thefts, dirty D.U.I cases, stolen drugs and setting up a brothel, Baxter observed, “If I saw a movie that included all those things, I’d think that this is not realistic.”
And there was a perhaps surprising amount of stated consensus about what needs to happen next from panelists Woo, Herley, defense attorney Stuart Hanlon, newly sworn-in SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, Anne Irwin, an attorney at the Public Defender’s Office, and John Burris, an Oakland-based civil rights attorney who is renowned for representing plaintiffs in police brutality cases.
Baxter asked the panelists why abuse of power happens, and whether, when we see media accounts of alleged police misconduct, we see the most extreme cases.
Hanlon kicked off by referring to the case of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a former high ranking member of the Black Panther Party, who was tried and convicted of the kidnap and murder of Caroline Olsen in 1972, and spent 27 years in prison, eight in solitary confinement, until 1997 when his conviction was vacated on the grounds that the prosecution concealed evidence that might have exonerated him. In particular, the government had not disclosed that a key witness against Pratt, Julius Butler, was an informant for both the FBI and the LAPD. Pratt eventually received $4.5 million as settlement for false imprisonment—the city of L.A. paid $2.75 million, the U.S. Department of Justice paid $1.75 million.
“We learned that law enforcement officers had hidden evidence, let people commit perjury, and destroyed evidence to convict someone who was innocent, “ Hanlon recalled, noting how when he first worked on the case, folks wondered if Pratt’s claim of innocence was simply part of a big conspiracy theory. “But it was not, it was men and women who thought the ends justified the means” Hanlon said, noting that the “bad apples” theory is typically trotted out during investigations into alleged police misconduct. “But officers see people who they think are bad people, and they feel they must whatever it takes,” Hanlon continued. “Primarily, most law enforcement people are good, but sometimes you get good cops lying to protect bad cops. It’s a dilemma, this concept of ‘what we do we need to do, this ‘us versus them’ concept.”
Hanlon claimed that officers don’t think citizens who live in SROs (single room occupancy hotels) have the same rights as folks in Pacific Heights.
“They think it’s OK to break down doors because these are drug dealers,” he said. And he noted that the recent string of back-to-back scandals are unusual in their proximity but are not unusual, generally speaking. “I’m not an apologist for (Chief) Suhr or the D.A., but I’ve seen these problems forever, and without trust law enforcement doesn’t work,” Hanlon concluded.
Next, Baxter put Suhr in the hot seat by asking him what to do about the “ends justify the means concept”. At which point Suhr, who has been Chief for less than two weeks, observed that the summit, which was packed to the gills with defense and civil rights attorneys, was “a bit of an away game for me, but it’s O.K., I can handle it." He noted that only 1 in 11 applicants make it through the SFPD Police Academy, where folks undergo 1,100 hours of training, including sessions on abuse of power and responsibilities. “But if something is proven, it’s my intention not to have those officers in the SFPD any more,” Suhr said.
Retired Tiburon Chief Pete Herley revealed that during his decades-long police career, he blew the whistle when three officers nearly beat a gay man to death. “I suffered the consequences for many years,” he said. “It’s very lonely getting death threats, it’s very lonely when you don’t get the backing of fellow officers.”
Herley claimed times have changed a lot. “Change starts in the Academy and the selection of officers, and you have no other law enforcement officers that get more scrutiny, background checks m psychological checks and an 18-month probation period,” he said.
He noted that police chiefs inherit a departmental culture, whether they come into the post from the inside or the outside of the department. And that while the number of officers involved in misconduct is small, “it makes good press.”
“I really feel one needs to be more loyal to integrity than to people,” Herley continued, noting that his parents were Holocaust survivors, and that his father was aghast when he decided to become a police officer. “But I had certain values and I don’t expect anything less from other people. I expect that every department has something in their rules and regulations that directs their officers that if they see misconduct, it’ll be stopped and the action will be reported immediately to the Chief.
Baxter asked Woo what the D.A. should do, if there is a problem.“All we are is our integrity, our ability to communicate and put forth evidence to juries “ Woo observed, noting that she has been on the frontlines as allegations about the crime lab, the Henri Hotel, and now potential theft, surfaced. “We find ourselves very reactive,” Woo observed, noting that if officers are not being truthful, the D.A.’s office has to look at all the cases they were involved in. “So it really impacts public safety and how all of us view the criminal justice system,” Woo said, noting that officers involved in the Henri Hotel allegations taken off the street.“But we have no interest in prosecuting individuals if it’s not based on solid evidence,” Woo said.
She recommended proactive steps like getting involved in Police Academy training on the law, and what officers can and cannot do, and giving officers tools to make good decisions and arrests, so there is integrity in the system. “If there isn’t, we all lose, not just the criminal justice system, but the entire community,” Woo observed, noting that as SFPD Chief, “Gascón instituted lots of policies to make sure people are doing an appropriate level of review.”
Baxter asked Anne Irwin, an attorney in the Public Defender’s Office, about their office’s role in bringing abuse of power to the attention of the public. “The Public Defender has a unique and natural role as a messenger,” Irwin replied. “We have more meaningful interaction with the victims of police misconduct than anyone else in the criminal justice system. We get into the intimate details of their lives, we develop a relationship of trust, so they confide their stories about police misconduct. And those stories are commonplace.”
Irwin noted that these stories include a disrespect for the Fourth Amendment , perjury and theft. “When you hear those stories over and over, there’s a ring of truth, a consistency,” Irwin said, noting that this is not the first time officers have been captured on camera. “We didn’t say, let’s amass a bunch of evidence. We just basically did our job. Residents told us what someone said in a report is not what happened, so we got videos from Dec. 23 and Jan. 5, and lo and behold, every word was true, two for two.”
Irwin noted that there are many good officers in the SFPD, but questioned whether a culture develops in certain departments, including the plain-clothes units, that allows misconduct to happen. “Without the videos officers would not have had to answer for their conduct,” she observed.
Baxter asked Suhr what it is about the culture that makes some cops go rogue. “Did they work there too long, were the temptations too much?” she asked.
Suhr replied that he worked in narcotics for a long time, and recovered $1.4 million in cash from an apartment in the Western Addition. “I never took a dime, and I am confident that the officers I worked with were of the highest caliber,” he said. “To paint a 2,000-person organization with a broad brush is unfair,” he added. “In the legal profession, every once in a while, you see ugly stories there too.”
Burris, who filed a $25 million wrongful death claim against BART on behalf of Oscar Grant's family, noted that he has been involved in about 1,000 police misconduct cases in the Bay Area. “A culture exists about how you treat minority communities, “ he said, noting that he had represented black and brown clients for over 20 years. “A culture where you beat people and nothing is done, and you get away with it.”
Burris believes the problem lies in how policies are imposed, as he claimed that when officers join departments they are told to forget what they were taught in the Academy.“This is what you do on the streets,” he said.
Baxter observed that she has seen movies about the code of silence and wondered if it actually exists in police departments. “I don’t think so generally," Suhr said. “There’s peer pressure to be sure. A regular citizen has a right not to self incriminate, and in the Police Department you can say that, but you are immediately sent to Internal Affairs, where you are told, tell me what happened or you are fired. So, today, the light is shining on us 100 percent of the time.”
Herley noted that his concern lay with situations in which officers see something, but don’t say anything. “I never thought I’d sit here and agree with every word John Burris says, but it starts at the top, and has to be enforced throughout the organization.”
Herley said the two best tools to prevent indiscretions and ensure responsibility are tape recorders and video cameras. “There’s certification of exactly what happened.” As for questions of how much it would cost to outfit officers with this recording equipment, Herley said, “ What is the cost of a lawsuit, the cost the perception of a loss of integrity to a department?”