Recently the San Francisco Chronicle again took aim at the SF Police Department accusing them of a litany of inaction, slow response times, and failure to investigate crimes concluding in a recent article: “What is the Police Department doing? Too often, the answer is not much”.
Some answers to their question are on the 8th floor of 1 Van Ness Ave, where they would find the Department of Police Accountability.
The San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints was established 1982 and placed under the authority of the Police Commission. In 2016, its name was changed to the Department of Police Accountability and its authority expanded to include periodic audits of the SFPD. The DPA publishes an annual report of the number and nature of citizen complaints as well as the results of its investigations. The current Director of the DPA is Paul Henderson, who was appointed in 2017. He is a former prosecutor and mayoral chief of staff for public safety with nearly 30 years of experience in criminal justice system.
While most complaints to the DPA come from citizens, the DPA has the authority to initiate independent investigations.
After reaching a five year high in 2020 of 799 filed and investigated, the number decreased in 2021 to 595 – a six year low. And while 2020 not surprisingly generated the highest number of investigations – it also produced the lowest percentage of sustained complaints. This could be in part because cases opened are not necessarily closed the same year they are made. It raises the question that there is little correlation between the volume of complaints made and actual violations of policy by officers.
The majority of complaints filed and investigated are “Neglect of Duty”, “Conduct Unbecoming an officer”, and “Unwarranted Action” incidents.
At first glance, the numbers look bad as does the language. Neglect of duty is not doing one’s job, conduct unbecoming is doing your job badly, and unwarranted action is doing something unnecessarily.
In all of the above categories of bad conduct the results of the investigation is what matters – and in that respect – SFPD is doing a very good job indeed.
With the exception of 2019, which had the highest number of sustained complaints, the overall number of sustained complaints has been decreasing since 2016, falling to 35 in 2021.
Both the low number of sustained complaints and decreasing frequency indicates a high level of compliance by SFPD officers to departmental policy and procedures.
The Chronicle is right that when they say police response times are too long and investigative assets are stretched thin. The revolving door of felony arrestees released by the DA and courts is spinning and that’s both contributing to the problem and is a public safety morale killer. San Francisco PD is down 400 budgeted positions leaving those that remain to pick up the slack while recruiters try in vain to fill positions in a highly competitive job market where communities within an easy drive of San Francisco offer far better pay, more affordable housing, better schools, and importantly, a commitment to protecting victims.
Recently, Mayor Breed was talking tough on crime. But just a little over a year ago she was chopping $120,000,000 from the police budget. Some political leaders today are continuing a relentless assault on the profession of policing that pushes the false narrative that police are abusive racists even in the face of statistics from their own police watchdog and accolades from around the nation that clearly show they are not. A recent Department of Justice report states “SFPD has achieved substantial compliance with the majority of the reform recommendations. This is a significant achievement as it is the only example of voluntary reform at this level in the United States (U.S.).”
The Chronicle should take note of this in future reporting on the SFPD.
Steve Smith is a senior fellow in urban studies at the Pacific Research Institute.