Commission Blasts San Francisco PD Chief over Use-of-Force Probes

Feb. 10, 2022
The San Francisco Police Commission could compel Chief Bill Scott to change his decision to end an agreement with the district attorney's office to head police use-of-force investigations.

By Rachel Swan

Source San Francisco Chronicle

The San Francisco Police Commission appears to be leaning toward forcing Police Chief Bill Scott to reverse his decision to sever an agreement that grants District Attorney Chesa Boudin's office lead authority over police use-of-force investigations.

The commission plans to vote on the matter next week.

Scott fielded hours of grilling and upbraiding by police commissioners on Wednesday evening, as the commissioners expressed shock and disappointment that the chief pulled out of the agreement without first consulting them.

Scott dug in his heels though, listing a host of new allegations in which said the DA's office had violated the terms of their memorandum of understanding, or MOU.

Playing the role of mediator, Commission President Malia Cohen suggested various ways the police chief and DA could patch up their disputes — some of which Scott seemed to warm to by the end of the meeting.

"We need to find a way to come back to the table," Cohen said. "It's been a week. I'm hopeful that cooler heads will prevail."

The commission could ultimately compel Scott to reverse course, and maintain his office's memorandum of understanding with Boudin, according to Commissioner John Hamasaki.

"I think the commission has been put in a position where there's not really any other option than us acting," Hamasaki said, citing advice from the City Attorney's Office that "we do have legal authority" to require the departments to keep their agreement.

Without intervention, the MOU could lapse as early as Feb. 17.

Scott said he terminated the agreement over concerns that the D.A.'s office withheld evidence that the Police Department is entitled to have during use-of-force investigations. Boudin denied that his office had violated the agreement, and said the police department has committed violations of its own.

Their dispute flared up at the beginning of contentious trial of a police officer — what is believed to be the first time a San Francisco officer is tried for on-duty use-of-force.

Scott on Wednesday evening forcefully rejected criticisms that his decision was made under pressure from the police union or was an attempt to return his department to policing their own. Scott has suggested that Attorney General Rob Bonta's office could instead fill the role as independent investigators, though Bonta said in a Wednesday statement that he hoped Scott and Boudin's offices could find "a pathway forward."

The chief said the members of his department have had their faith in the investigative process "shaken," and have told him it's a crisis.

"I think that should be listened to. I think that is important," Scott said. "And as a leader of this department, I think is part of my job to address that."

Scott said the recent allegations about the DA.s office withholding evidence from police was only the latest breach of trust, and he expressed frustration that prosecutors did not give him notice before announcing charges against officers in late 2020. Boudin has leveled several allegations of police violating the MOU as well.

The commissioners largely refrained from commenting about the technicalities of the MOU or specific allegations, but instead focused on what they described as a brash and irresponsible decision from the typically restrained leader.

Severing the agreement unilaterally "is an absolute last resort," said Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone, "And I'm concerned it's being used as a first resort."

"You pulled out of this MOU with no backup plan," he continued.

Hamasaki said no one had any interest in the MOU lapsing, or "farming out our investigations to other counties or state agencies."

"What we need to do, just like any other disagreement with branches of government... is to find a way to resolve the differences," he said. "I think this is a San Francisco issue and we need to keep it in San Francisco."

Cohen said next week's meeting would discuss mediation measures, including enlisting a third party to lead a meeting between Boudin and Scott.

By the end of the meeting, Scott appeared amenable to some of these suggestions.

"I do believe there are some things that can be mediated, I do," Scott said.

Jen Kwart, a spokesperson for the City Attorney's Office, said the commission "sets policy for the police department" and can "direct (Scott) to take action furthering the policy that they set forth." It was not clear what the consequences would be if Scott refused to comply with the commission's instructions.

"Regardless of where we stand on different issues," Hamasaki said, "I don't think the commission is willing to turn over our authority on this to the (police) department."

The standoff comes a day after Boudin and Scott traded accusations through letters released to the media. Throughout the correspondence, each side dug in, widening the chasm between San Francisco's two most powerful law enforcement officials.

In the run-up to the trial, Magen Hayashi, an investigator in the DA's office, testified that prosecutors pressured her to withhold evidence favorable to Stangel from police — statements from a witness who said the man Stangel is accused of striking, Dacari Spiers, was assaulting his girlfriend. Judge Teresa Caffese, who was overseeing the case, said no significant evidence appeared to have been suppressed. Spiers' girlfriend testified under oath that he was not assaulting her.

Hayashi's allegation of pressure disturbed Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, who sent a letter Monday to City Attorney David Chiu and Human Resources Director Carol Isen calling for an independent investigation. He characterized Hayashi's testimony as a whistleblower claim of workplace retaliation.

The police and D.A.'s office first struck an agreement in 2019, culminating years of trenchant debate over police accountability in San Francisco. The D.A.'s office was chosen as the lead investigative agency in police shootings and other use-of-force cases in an effort to inspire public trust, since police officers would no longer be tasked with investigating their own ranks.

On Tuesday, Boudin said Hayashi complied with the terms of the agreement — to provide information to police at certain specific intervals — as the agreement existed in 2019, before Boudin was in office. The agreement was revised in 2021 to specifiy that disclosures to police would be done on a rolling basis.

Although Scott has stressed the important have having an outside agency hold his department accountable for significant uses of force — and has proposed turning over these investigations to the California Department of Justice — Hamasaki said he did not believe the Police Commission would support such a move.

"That's not a serious proposal," Hamasaki said. To him, it smacked of "shopping for a different referee."

Known for dissension in the past, the Police Commission has become more unified under Cohen, Vice President Commissioner Cindy Elias said. Now, the policy-setting body is hearing a clamor of feedback as individual commissioners express frustration over the ferocity of the politics.

Among the public officials to weigh in is Brian Cox, director of the Integrity Unit at the Public Defender's office. In a letter sent Wednesday, he urged the Police Commission to "act decisively to preserve independent investigations."

Cox quoted a passage from the city charter that says the Commission is "empowered to prescribe and enforce any reasonable rules and regulations that it deems necessary to provide for the efficiency of the Department."


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