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San Francisco Police Commission – Too Much Power, Not enough Public Accountability

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By: Bob Offer-Westort

The San Francisco Police Commission is perhaps the most underestimated body in City government. When there’s a proposed policy change around policing—say, for example, Mayor Lee’s recently abandoned stop-and-frisk proposal—the tendency of many San Franciscans is to rally at the Board of Supervisors. San Franciscans have rallied at the Board of Supervisors in support of foot patrols. They’ve rallied against stop and frisk. They’ve rallied for more humane policies in dealing with people in psychiatric crisis. Intuitively, this makes sense: The Board of Supervisors is our legislature. Legislatures make laws, rules. Surely they can set policies for the Police Department?

But this is incorrect: Policing policy in San Francisco is the exclusive domain of the Police Commission. The Board of Supervisors has some influence: They control a portion of the Police Department’s budget, and Board members can introduce ballot measures which, if approved by the voters, would apply to the Police Department. But for most purposes, it is the Police Commission which decides.

For San Franciscans who are concerned about policing policy, this can be problematic. The Police Commission is comprised entirely of appointees (four from the Mayor, three from the Board of Supervisors), and is thus inherently less accountable to the electorate than are elected officials, such as Board members, the Mayor, the District Attorney, or the Public Defender. This leads to numerous problems, where community members have been taken by surprise by Department policy, or where very popular policies (such as more widespread foot patrols or Crisis Intervention Teams) have either not been implemented or have only been implemented half-heartedly because of Commission isolation from the people of the city.

Police Commission reform that would make the Commission members elected rather than appointed would require an amendment to the City Charter—a lengthy and challenging process that would require the approval of two thirds of the electorate. To the Commission’s credit, members have taken certain efforts to reach out more effectively to the people of San Francisco, primarily through holding Commission meetings out of City Hall, in the communities of San Francisco. But for such a powerful body, much more is needed. Some degree of this could be addressed by the Commission through good open government policies and transparent process reform.

A comparison with the Board of Supervisors is instructive in this regard. The Board is governed by a regularly-revised Rules of Order. The Rules of Order require that ordinances (local laws) be prepared in writing prior to introduction. A hearing on proposed legislation must be advertised to the public in advance. Before legislation can be passed, it must be heard before the public twice: a first reading and a passage. It is possible for the Board to pass emergency ordinances, but these remain in effect for only two months, allowing appropriate time for public hearing before a permanent version is passed. Meeting minutes must be drafted within ten days. Additionally, it is customary for the Board President to allow no action on an item until thirty days after introduction.

In contrast, the Police Commission allows verbal introduction and voting upon resolutions (“resolutions” being the form of declarations of Commission and Department policy, equivalent to ordinances for the local elected legislature) within the same meeting. Resolutions may be amended verbally, and not put in writing for weeks after a meeting. The result is that members of the Commission are frequently in dispute about the content of the resolutions on which they’re voting, and sometimes disagree about the content and intent of resolutions on which they have voted. The public is often surprised by the Commission’s actions … when it finds out about them. As of the writing of this story, at the end of August, no meeting minutes have been posted on the Commission’s web site for 2012.

It would be impractical and pointless for the Police Commission to adopt the Board of Supervisors’ Rules of Order as a whole, but the Board’s guidelines provide some indication of what sort of process might improve the Commission’s internal functioning, and accountability to the broader public.


Author: Street Sheet Editor

The STREET SHEET is the oldest continuously published street news paper in the United States. Organizationally, it is the public education and outreach tool of the Coalition on Homelessness. Every month, the STREET SHEET reaches 32,000 readers through over 200 homeless or low-income vendors. Our vendors are charged nothing for the papers they receive, and keep all money they earn through STREET SHEET distribution.

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