The Justice Department said Monday it would investigate the San Francisco Police Department, an announcement that comes two months after officers fatally shot a man in an incident that provoked outrage and protests after video footage emerged.
This review is meant to be a comprehensive examination of the police department’s policies and practices as well as how officers are kept accountable.
It was announced as protests continue over the death of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old shot and killed by officers on Dec. 2.
An account released by the police department said that Woods matched the description of a suspect wanted for an earlier stabbing that day and refused orders to drop his knife.
The department also said that police fired bean bags, meant to be “less lethal” rounds, and used pepper spray, but said these attempts did not work. Officers shot Woods after he moved towards an officer on the sidewalk, the police department said in a statement.
A video recorded of the shooting showed Woods, who suffered from mental illness and had spent much of his adult life in prison, standing against a wall as several officers stood on the sidewalk and street in front of him. In this video, Woods begins to move away from the larger group and he walks toward one officer, at which point police opened fire.
Authorities in San Francisco have promised a thorough investigation and also vowed to reassure the community. San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee, who was reelected to a second term last November, said that he found the video of Woods’s death “very upsetting.”
Lee said that in the days after the shooting, he directed the police department to change how its officers use force.
“Our police department will have at least as much training in de-escalation as we do in use of force,” Lee said in a statement. And he added that the department’s policies would be reviewed to ensure “that using lethal force is the last resort.”
Lee also called for a federal investigation, writing federal officials asking for such a probe. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California also sent a letter asking for an investigation into the department, arguing that only a federal inquiry could “craft enforceable remedies” and restore local trust in law enforcement.
Since the beginning of 2015, the department’s officers have shot and killed six people, according to a Washington Post database tracking police shootings.
Woods’s family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city over his death, and protests over the shooting have continued through last weekend.
Hundreds of people demonstrated downtown San Francisco on Saturday, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, marching to a fan village that opened Saturday to celebrate the upcoming Super Bowl. The Bay Area is scheduled to host Super Bowl 50 on Sunday in Santa Clara, Calif., at the stadium that is home to the San Francisco 49ers.
This review, made in response to requests from local residents and city officials, will be conducted by the Justice Department’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office).
“In the days and months ahead, we will examine the San Francisco Police Department’s current operational policies, training practices and accountability systems, and help identify key areas for improvement going forward,” Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch said in a statement. “I am confident that together we can make certain that our officers have the tools and training they need to do their jobs, and that every member of the San Francisco community has the protection and service they deserve.”
After this assessment is complete, the Justice Department will release a public report covering its findings as well as recommendations for improvement and follow that with progress reports tracking these recommendations.
Ronald Davis, director of the COPS Office, has deep ties to the Bay Area. Before joining the Justice Department, he had been chief of police in the city of East Palo Alto and spent two decades with the Oakland police.
The announcement of a federal review comes amid increased attention on how police officers use force, particularly lethal force, across the country. Protests and demonstrations have followed high-profile incidents nationwide, which has left many police officers feeling tense and demonized, even as police chiefs have discussed ways to try and change the way officers use force.
In this charged environment, this also marks the third time in less than a year that the Justice Department has announced plans to probe one of the country’s biggest police departments, coming as police departments in Baltimore and Chicago are already being investigated. Those two investigations, both launched in the wake of heavy protests, are being carried out by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division; these are known as “pattern or practice” probes, and if investigators find what they call a pattern or practice of unlawful policing, the end result is generally an agreement involving a court order.
The inquiry in San Francisco, by comparison, is what is known as a collaborative review, and rather than ending with a court-ordered agreement involving specific fixes, it offers an assessment and publicly-released progress reports, with the idea that the publicity brings with it accountability.
The mayor’s office and the police department did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Sari Horwitz contributed to this report.
[This story has been updated.]