San Francisco Bay Area Police Reform Takes Stagnant Action But Rising Violence Complicates Efforts

Within a year of George Floyd’s death, cities in the Bay Area began to launch ambitious police reforms to rethink the role of officers in public safety.

Some critics say the process has been too slow, allowing the abuses to continue, while others fear the reforms will go too far and make the area more dangerous.

Tension over the future of policing remains, with a central question still unanswered: To what extent can cities divert money and energy from traditional policing while keeping communities safe?

Some reforms were quickly adopted in the Bay Area. Police officers in San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, and BART have all decided to replace officers with counselors to respond to some mental health or homelessness calls.

But promises of massive cuts in police budgets have been slow to materialize. Executives in Berkeley and Oakland have vowed to cut their departments’ budgets in half, but have found the reality more complicated as cities like Oakland have seen a rise in homicides.

Even with broad support, changes take time.

“This is uncharted territory,” said Hans Menos, vice president of law enforcement initiatives at the Center for Policing Equity. “The reforms we are talking about … involve a radical change in the way public safety is approached.”

City leaders recognize that progress has been slow in some areas, but say the momentum is there.

“Reform is coming to America whether some people like it or not,” said Regina Jackson, chairman of the Oakland Police Commission.

The Chronicle spoke to city leaders and police officials in four major Bay Area towns to get a feel for the state of play with reforms and the kind of work that remains to be done.

San Francisco

Last June, amid protests against police brutality, San Francisco Mayor London Breed presented a roadmap for reform. These included removing sworn officers from homeless and mental health appeals, directing funds to black communities, and rooting out abusive agents of force.

While some proposals were already planned, supporters say the national movement has helped accelerate them.

In November, the city launched its first police-less street crisis teams – experts who respond to non-criminal calls about people in distress. Teams were long planned as part of Mental Health SF, a system overhaul, but they’re gaining momentum now.

City officials are now sifting through other types of calls – minor traffic violations or a dog on the street off a leash – that may be better suited to civilian responses. But the process is deliberate and takes time.

“It’s really like building the Bay Bridge while we’re still using it,” said Ivy Lee, Breed policy advisor. “We are very careful because we want to make sure that we do things right, no one will get hurt.”

Other efforts include eliminating racial bias in the ranks by revamping police testing and background checks.

The city has also started to choose how $ 120 million in law enforcement funds will be invested in the black community over the next two years, with early education, skills training and housing programs.

Some advocates of violence against police say the initiatives do not go far enough. John Crew, a San Francisco resident and retired police practices expert for the ACLU, said the department has yet to adopt programs that teach “bystander” officers how to intervene when a colleague uses excessive force. and not practicing enough de-escalation on an ongoing basis.

“SFPD, when things are going well, has been very reluctant to make the kind of changes that are needed to really change the culture,” Crew said.

But San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott said last year’s move prompted the department to “step up our game” by supplementing reform recommendations made by the Department of Justice in 2016 to the following the murder by police of a man with mental illness.

Scott said the department has submitted 253 of the 272 recommendations for review and has been found compliant with 183 of them.

“What he did was he added a sense of urgency,” said Scott, who applauded Breed’s initiatives. “All of this really gets us going.”

Oakland

Last summer, Oakland executives pledged to cut the police department’s budget in half, by about $ 150 million. As city leaders embark on a process of “reimagining” the police, Oakland has seen an upsurge in violent crime, including more than 102 homicides last year and more than 50 homicides so far this year.

Support for a strong police presence remains high. A recent survey of residents found that 78% of respondents said they wanted the same or more police to patrol their neighborhood and answer 911 calls.

Steve Heimoff, chairman of the Coalition for a Better Oakland, a group that wants more police officers, said he no longer feels safe in the city.

“Oakland seems to be experiencing a historic crime wave and it’s just mind boggling that anyone talking about limiting the number of police we have,” he said.

But leaders say investing in social services will tackle the “root causes” of the violence.

Council President Nikki Fortunato Bas, one of the co-chairs of the Public Safety Reinvention working group, said that creating “strong support for the neighborhood, housing, employment, ‘education and health care’ will reduce violence.

Meanwhile, the board agreed to prioritize 12 task force recommendations when determining the budget. These priorities include a pilot program to send fire department counselors and paramedics rather than mental health crisis officers. The recent survey found that nearly 60% of respondents supported removing the police from non-violent situations and mental health calls.

Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong said his service is open to reform and listens to the community as it prioritizes de-escalation tactics.

“The Oakland Police Department has continued to accept the call of this moment when people are asking for different policies,” he said.

The police board is also changing policies, prohibiting the use of neck holds and piling on people while they are being held. In addition, the commission approved a requirement for officers to attempt to defuse a situation in the face of an armed but unresponsive person following the police murder of a homeless man in 2018.

Berkeley

Berkeley pledged last summer to halve its police budget to $ 36 million by this summer, but executives admit such a drastic cut will likely take longer.

Mayor Jesse Arreguín said that while Berkeley has put forward “this objective as a benchmark to be assessed, we are not there yet”.

The city’s public safety reinvention task force is expected to make recommendations to council in August.

Meanwhile, the council ordered a plan of reforms such as the elimination of police checks for low-level offenses, including not wearing seat belts or driving with expired license plates.

People will not be arrested for such offenses, Arreguín said. But the police will stop for reckless driving and speeding.

The city also plans over the next few years to create a transport department to enforce certain traffic rules, but details are not yet clear.

In addition, the city hopes to launch specialized care units to respond to mental health calls.

Some changes have already been implemented, said Arreguín. Police must obtain written consent before searching people and can no longer ask people for their probation or parole status.

“Bigger structural changes take time,” Arreguín said. “Some of them require changes in the law, negotiating with the police unions.”

Those who advocate for cutting police spending often advocate for replacement programs that don’t yet exist, said Dan Lindheim, a member of the Berkeley task force and professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

“Reducing police spending will take time,” Lindheim said.

The Berkeley Police Department declined to comment for this story.

San jose

Last June, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo presented a plan to tackle police accountability, but stopped short of supporting the department’s definancing, arguing it was already understaffed.

The city has since made some changes – voters endorsed an independent police auditor having a broader review of use-of-force incidents – while others have stalled. Officials are still negotiating with the police union to see if an independent body can monitor allegations of misconduct.

“We have had some success,” Liccardo said, adding: “I would like to believe that we are on the right track.”

Sajid Khan, a deputy public defender in San Jose, said the proposed reforms appeared to have little impact on the day-to-day police. Khan pointed to a controversy police shooting in january, months after the Floyd protests.

“From my perspective, I haven’t seen or noticed any reform, or any tangible difference,” Khan said.

Sarah Ravani and Megan Cassidy are editors of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: sravani@sfchronicle.com, megan.cassidy@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @SarRavani @meganrcassidy




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