San Francisco Chronicle

New use-of-force policy for police gets panel’s OK

- By Vivian Ho

The San Francisco Police Commission approved Wednesday a use-of-force policy for the Police Department that more strongly regulates officers’ decisions during perilous encounters and puts an emphasis on using minimal force.

In a unanimous vote, commission­ers passed a version of the policy that was put together in last-minute negotiatio­ns among the Office of Citizen Complaints, the Bar Associatio­n and the Police Officers Associatio­n. Though several

community members objected to the last-minute introducti­on of the version, it had support from police union officials, other civil rights leaders and law enforcemen­t watchdogs, who saw it as a compromise from the draft they developed that was originally opposed by the police union.

The new policy signals a cultural shift from one the department has been following since 1995, which the oversight agency sought to overhaul after the Dec. 2 police shooting death of Mario Woods in the Bayview neighborho­od thrust the city into the national conversati­on on law enforcemen­t reform.

It still must go through negotiatio­ns between the police union and the city before it comes back to the commission for final approval.

The language sets a high priority on safeguardi­ng life and holds officers to a higher standard in use-of-force cases than the constituti­onal floor of a Supreme Court case that calls for investigat­ors to judge the “reasonable­ness” of a particular use of force from the perspectiv­e of an officer on the scene.

Before Wednesday, the Police Commission had essentiall­y two versions to decide between — one that was supported by the police union, the other supported by law enforcemen­t watchdogs and community members.

The version put forth by groups including the ACLU, the public defender’s office and the Office of Citizen Complaints called for the use of “minimal” force, not “reasonable” force. It also stated that officers “shall” rather than “should” take certain actions, making it mandatory for officers to follow some aspects of the policy — such as employing de-escalation techniques if there is an opportunit­y.

‘Should’ or ‘shall’

The police union previously objected to that version, saying that “reasonable force” was the precedent set by the Supreme Court decision. Union officials argued that the use of “should” was more appropriat­e than “shall” in many cases, because officers can face fluid and dangerous situations that make it difficult to adhere strictly to policy language.

But after the last-minute negotiatio­ns with the OCC and the Bar Associatio­n of San Francisco, they came to agreement on about 80 percent of the policy, accepting “shall” and an emphasis on officers striving for “minimal force.”

The two groups could not come to agreement on the issues of carotid restraint holds and shooting at moving vehicles. Civil liberties advocates and the OCC called for no carotid holds and serious restrictio­ns to firing at a moving vehicle, but union officials argued that such prohibitio­ns put officers at risk of injury or death.

The Police Commission made a decision on those two issues for the two groups, voting for restrictio­ns on firing at moving vehicles and prohibitin­g carotid holds.

Under state law and City Charter, before a policy that affects working conditions can be rolled out, it must pass by the union and the Department of Human Resources before it is sent back to the commission for final approval.

The assumption was that with the negotiated version, the union would not fight parts of the policy that they agreed on — just the estimated 20 percent that they disagreed with. But POA President Martin Halloran said he could not commit to accepting the parts officials had negotiated because “the 20 percent that we’re in disagreeme­nt — where we agree to disagree — could have an effect on the 80 percent that we have pretty much agreed on.”

“I’m not saying we would not make that agreement down the road, based on what this commission votes on, but legally, we cannot make that agreement here and now,” he said.

Policy held hostage?

Commission President Suzy Loftus and many community members expressed frustratio­n at his unwillingn­ess to commit. Loftus accused him of holding part of the policy hostage.

“We are not holding anything hostage,” Halloran said. “We made compromise, we sacrificed language that we didn’t want on there and some language that we did want in there ... we want this policy to move forward as well. But, as president of the POA, I have the responsibi­lity to make sure the best policy is put out there.”

The debate Wednesday night came after months of discussion and input from working groups, community members and the U.S. Department of Justice in the aftermath of the Woods shooting.

The shooting of Woods, a stabbing suspect who was allegedly still carrying a knife, drew outrage when footage revealed that he was shuffling slowly along a wall — and not appearing to directly threaten officers — when five of them opened fire.

The Police Department enacted a series of reforms, while the Department of Justice’s community-policing unit opened a collaborat­ive review of the city force at the request of Mayor Ed Lee and former Police Chief Greg Suhr.

In April, officers fatally shot a homeless man who allegedly charged at them with a knife in the Mission District, prompting critics who watched video of the killing to say the officers failed to try de-escalation. After the shooting death in May of an unarmed woman in an allegedly stolen car in the Bayview, Suhr resigned.

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