San Francisco officials asked the federal government to investigate their police force in 2016, amid protests about a deadly shooting, seeking to restore the community’s faith in one of the country’s largest departments.
The Justice Department launched an investigation and released a report detailing hundreds of recommendations. The city pledged to make changes. And then the Justice Department said it was rolling back the oversight program as Attorney General Jeff Sessions pushed to be more supportive of police.
Now, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) says the state will step in to provide oversight for San Francisco police reforms, the latest example of the state pushing back against the Trump administration or taking on roles officials felt were shirked by leaders in Washington.
“When local law enforcement agencies reach out for support, the last thing our federal government should do is abandon them,” Becerra, who has filed a volley of lawsuits against the Trump administration, said in a statement.
Sessions had described the change to the oversight program as “a course correction” aimed at focusing on getting resources to police departments in need rather than engaging in expansive probes. A spokesman for the Justice Department declined to comment Tuesday about Becerra’s remark.
The Justice Department began investigating the San Francisco police in February 2016 at the request of then-mayor Edwin M. Lee (D) following the death of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old shot and killed by police in an incident caught on camera.
The review came as departments across the country were targets of protests, scrutiny and calls for reform amid heightened public attention to fatal police shootings. In San Francisco, the police force also faced criticism when it was made public that officers had exchanged racist and homophobic text messages. With the Justice Department review ongoing, an officer in San Francisco shot and killed a 29-year-old woman named Jessica Williams, prompting the mayor to remove the city’s police chief.
Unlike federal civil rights probes in cities such as Baltimore — which can end with court-enforceable agreements called consent decrees — the San Francisco investigation was conducted by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), which publicly releases assessments and progress reports in an effort to ensure accountability.
The COPS review in San Francisco, released a month before President Trump was elected, determined police did not properly investigate uses of force and “disproportionately” stopped and searched black people. The report also included 272 recommendations and noted that the COPS Office’s collaborative review process would continue to include technical assistance and monitoring to make sure changes were put into place.
After taking office, Sessions ordered Justice Department officials to review police reform agreements, saying it was necessary to ensure they were promoting officer morale and safety, fighting crime and letting local authorities manage their law enforcement agencies. The department then announced last September that, as a result of the review, the COPS Office would shift from larger investigations and focus instead on “targeted assistance” aimed at helping police forces “based on their identified needs and requests.”
Sessions described the change as “a course correction to ensure that resources go to agencies that require assistance rather than expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support.”
The shift apparently meant that under Sessions, the COPS Office will not conduct the kind of investigation that it did in San Francisco. The Justice Department told San Francisco officials at the time that it would stop helping evaluate the police department’s “progress and implementation of the reforms,” according to a document the city’s mayor and police chief signed this week.
In a statement last fall, the San Francisco police said the “changes limit the scope of technical assistance available” to local departments but pledged to continue with changes and to implement every recommendation from the report.
“San Francisco had the question of, ‘what do we do?’ ” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. “Rather than looking to Washington, they’re looking to Sacramento to get assistance.”
Officials from San Francisco, including William Scott, the police chief, signed a memorandum of understanding on Monday with Becerra’s office “for the sole purpose of evaluating and reporting on” the department’s implementation of the changes. Under the agreement, the California Department of Justice, which is led by Becerra, will act as an independent third party reviewing the police force’s progress.
San Francisco Mayor Mark Farrell (D), who signed the agreement, said in statement that having the California Department of Justice oversee the process would help the city “follow through” on a promise “to transform our police department.”
Since Trump took office, officials in California have doggedly pushed back against his administration, and the state is expected to shift further left. While other blue states pursue legislation seen as blockades against Trump, the president and Republicans in Congress also have pushed policies that tend to punish states that voted Democratic in the 2016 presidential election.
California is not alone in having state officials try to make sure reforms recommended by the federal government are put into place by a local police force. In the final days of the Obama administration, the Justice Department released the scathing results of a civil rights investigation into the Chicago police, concluding that officers there had a pattern of using excessive force.
But since no consent decree followed, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) joined with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) and the city’s police superintendent, Eddie Johnson, and announced a lawsuit last summer seeking such an order in court.