Public Officials at Racial Justice Summit Express Support for Increasing Officer Accountability with Body-Mounted Cameras

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi held a justice summit on race and reform in San Francisco today providing a venue for top officials as well as members of the public to discuss recent law enforcement misconduct and potential solutions.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon and San Francisco Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi both spoke at the summit and enthusiastically endorsed the use of body-mounted cameras on police officers and sheriff’s deputies who are in contact with the public.

Gascon said he has sent letters to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, the Board of Supervisors and Police Chief Greg Suhr asking for them to place body-mounted cameras on officers.

Gascon said he is asking the city to have every arrest that takes place in San Francisco to be captured on video by July 1, 2016.

Mirkarimi said the deputies working in San Francisco County jails would also be equipped with body-mounted cameras.

“We’re going to reform our system,” Mirkarimi said, explaining that disrespect or abuse of members of the public will lead to officers being counseled on proper protocol or disciplined when appropriate.

Mirkarimi said he thinks body-mounted cameras should be used not only on a local level, but also across the state and the nation, to expose bias and misconduct.

San Francisco police Commander Toney Chaplin, who was sitting in on behalf of Chief Suhr at the summit today, said that body-mounted cameras are in the police department’s future.

“I think it’s long overdue,” Chaplin said. “I can’t wait till we get them.”

He said the cameras would go a long way to ensure that any officers who can’t do their jobs while also respecting the public that they serve are fired.

Chaplin said he is saddened about all the events, both in San Francisco and across the country, that have led up to this moment but that he is happy these issues are finally being addressed.

Adachi said that in recent months San Francisco law enforcement has had many scandals involving biased behavior and misconduct. He cited recent allegations of deputies in the county jail forcing inmates to fight gladiator-style; racist and homophobic text messages sent between police officers; an SFPD and the Drug Enforcement Administration sting operation known as Operation Safe Schools that allegedly targeted African Americans in the Tenderloin and issues with the police department’s DNA lab.

There have also been numerous fatal officer-involved shootings that have the public concerned about police brutality, Adachi said, and it’s clear that people of color are not being treated fairly in San Francisco.

Adachi said that San Francisco’s black community comprises roughly 6 percent of the general population, yet it’s 50 times more likely for a black youth to be incarcerated than a white youth.

He said that on a national level racial prejudice is visible in bail settings, as judges tend to set bail higher for black defendants than white defendants accused of the same crimes. During sentencing black people in the United States are 30 percent more likely than white people to receive a harsher sentence for the same alleged crime.

“There is a solution but it’s going to take a Herculean effort,” Adachi said.

One of the best things that the city can focus on is collecting and analyzing data from detentions and arrests, and track that information for racial disparities, Adachi said.

Michael Roosevelt, a judicial educator on diversity, fairness and unconscious bias in the justice system, said the recent misconduct in the San Francisco Police Department and the San Francisco’s Sheriff’s Office stems from explicit and implicit biases among law enforcement officials.

He believes unconscious bias training and increased accountability will reduce misconduct among officers and deputies.

Two San Franciscans who had negative recent encounters with law enforcement officials also spoke about their experiences at today’s summit.

Peretz Partensky, the co-founder of a San Francisco food sourcing startup, said he and a friend were outside his house when they saw two people in the street who had just gotten into a serious bicycle crash. Partensky said he and his friend called 911, stayed with the victims until emergency crews arrived and let them use their cellphones.

However, when a San Francisco police arrived at the scene of the crash, the officer told Partensky to leave. When Partensky tried to explain to the officer that he was waiting for his friend who was with one of the victims, he said the police officer tackled him to the ground.

When Partensky, still pinned to the ground, told the officer he had recently had surgery on his arm and that he was in pain, the officer apparently twisted his arm harder.

After being handcuffed and placed in county jail for interfering with an emergency situation, Partensky said he requested that sheriff’s deputies allow him to see a doctor for his injuries.

Instead of seeing a doctor, he was put into a psychiatric cell where the deputies took off his clothes while “smirking and giggling”.

He said after spending the night in the cell, almost completely naked, he was allowed to see a mental health evaluator and eventually released.

He said he filed a report with the Office of Citizen Complaints as well as with the sheriff’s department, but doesn’t know if anything has come of his complaint.

Another resident, Meseka Henry, described an event that occurred on March 31 in the Mission District as she was searching for a parking spot.

She said two police officers pulled her over for obstructing traffic and when she told them she was going to record a video of them on her phone, one of the officers threw her phone and grabbed her by the hair.

An officer then reached into the car and tried to drag her out of the car, although she still had her seatbelt fastened, Henry said.

The officer released her seatbelt and slammed her to the ground outside the car, Henry said.

She said she was placed in the patrol car and told that if she didn’t sign a citation, she would be arrested.

Roosevelt said these are just two examples out of many that are happening in San Francisco and across the country everyday in which police officers are acting as if the public was the enemy.

“We have whole communities that are traumatized,” Roosevelt said.

He said that officers who aren’t held accountable are choosing to react to situations based on their personal implicit biases.

“They don’t think about what they are doing,” Roosevelt said. “They’re on automatic.”

Partensky said his experience filing a complaint at the Office of Citizen Complaints made him realize that the staff there doesn’t believe that their own office has much power and acknowledged that the OCC is, as Partensky described, “a place where complaints go to die.”

Officers for Justice president and San Francisco police Sgt. Yulanda Williams, who was personally targeted in the recent racist police text messages by officers, described the racism she experienced at the hands of fellow officers.

Williams said they called her a racial slur in the text messages and that they exhibited outright bigotry and hatred toward all different types of people.

“We know this is not an isolated incident,” Williams said.

She said, as both president of the Officers for Justice and a sergeant in the police department, that there has been a consistent problem with the disciplinary process in the police department.

She said that as a victim of this crime, she has still not been interviewed by SFPD internal affairs and has not been asked if she feels safe in her work environment.

San Francisco Supervisor David Campos, an unexpected speaker at today’s summit, said he is disappointed in the lack of leadership on racial justice in City Hall.

“City Hall has essentially been silent on these issues,” Campos said today. He said he hopes the city leaders will rise to the challenge and help make the system more transparent and create a city that can be a national example of reform.

Some of the solutions to improve racial justice in San Francisco offered by participants at the summit today included evaluation of law enforcement officers’ mental state for post-traumatic stress disorder and conducting implicit bias training for officers so that they can understand their prejudices and be in control of their actions in light of them.

Other solutions offered today included refining California’s Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act to better protect the public and increase transparency and accountability by requiring officers’ discipline records as well as complaints filed against them to be made publicly available.

Hannah Albarazi, Bay City News

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