A voluntary review and reform program for police departments overseen by the U.S. Department of Justice is undergoing “significant changes,” including effectively ending federal oversight of the San Francisco Police Department that began early last year, Justice Department officials confirmed Tuesday.
The news wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of all reform agreements across the country in April, and a change in direction was expected. But the extent of the change still came as a shock to the former Department of Justice official who ran the program until earlier this year.
“I didn’t think they were going to effectively end collaborative reform, which is what it seems like,” said Ron Davis, the former director of the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services who oversaw the growth of the collaborative reform program and its implementation in San Francisco.
“This Department of Justice is really missing a great opportunity to work collaboratively with the field to address some of the greatest challenges in our democracy as far as dealing with issues of force, race, trust, community policing — these are the foundations of effective crimefighting,” Davis said. “To think that you can just round up a bunch of people, make a lot of arrests, target immigrants and reduce crime is a disservice to entire communities and it’s a disservice to public safety.”
The Collaborative Reform Initiative was at work in 15 major police departments throughout the nation. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and former Police Chief Greg Suhr requested inclusion in the program after the fatal police shooting of Mario Woods in December 2015.
The Justice Department’s February 2016 announcement that it would review SFPD was met with skepticism. Critics argued that the collaborative reform initiative lacked the legal teeth to force changes in a department under intense scrutiny for a series of controversial police shootings, criminal prosecutions of former officers and multiple scandals involving officers swapping racist text messages. Police reform advocates called for the stronger intervention of a DOJ Civil Rights Division investigation, whose findings and recommendations would have likely been enforced by a federal court.
Instead, SFPD got a lighter touch, but it grew into a heavy report released in October that found “concerning deficiencies in every operational area assessed,” including use of force, bias, community policing, accountability, recruitment, hiring and promotions.
The report included a road map of 272 recommendations, which city and Police Department leaders immediately vowed to implement. Part of that process included follow-up reviews by the COPS office and a final assessment on the SFPD’s progress scheduled for June 2018. Those follow-ups will not occur, the Justice Department confirmed Tuesday.
“The Department of Justice remains a resource for these departments,” a DOJ official said in an emailed response. “We are here to provide assistance and support, not wide-ranging assessments and progress reports.”
“Over the past several years, collaborative reform evolved to include much broader-ranging assessments of law enforcement agencies, identifying criticisms of agency practices as basis for the COPS Office to recommend significant changes and monitor the adoption of those changes,” further guidance provided by the DOJ says. “This led to the unintended consequence of a more adversarial relationship between the DOJ and the participating law enforcement agencies.”
SFPD has implemented or is implementing just under half of the 272 recommendations as of late August, according to a statement from the department.
“Our work is not done,” San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said in a written statement. “We are committed to the principles of 21st century policing and the men and women of the SFPD are determined to strengthen trust between law enforcement officers and the communities we serve. The Department of Justice process provided our department with a blueprint that will enable us to become a model law enforcement agency. We are more determined than ever to see this crucial work fulfilled.”
In its new vision for the collaborative reform program, the DOJ plans to partner with “leading law enforcement professional groups to provide practical, ‘by the field, for the field’ technical assistance” in 14 topic areas, including tactics to target gang, drug and gun violence.
The topics do not include community policing, racial bias or trust — areas Davis says are integral to effectively reducing crime.
“It’s really somewhat disingenuous for the attorney general to say that he want’s to focus on crimefighting and at the same time create an environment where he’s basically causing an even greater division between police and the community, especially communities of color — you can’t fight crime that way. You can occupy a neighborhood. You can oppress people. You can take a lot of people to jail, but that’s not public safety,” Davis said.