Distrust, Tragedy, Reform

City College pushes to rebuild broken relationship between the SFPD and the Bayview District

By Joe Fitzgerald
The Guardsman 

San Francisco Police Department Officer, not identified by SFPD, hold crowds back as Kenneth Harding Jr. lays on the ground after being shot on July 16, 2011 in the Bayview District. IMAGE COURTESY OF YOUTUBE USER THEONENONLY457

When Kenneth Harding Jr. lay bleeding from a gunshot wound in the middle of the Bayview district on July 16, the last of the neighborhood’s trust in the SFPD bled out along with him.

In response, City College trustee Chris Jackson tabled the renewal of the college’s contract with the SFPD, delaying a decision on whether or not to continue to fund the police academy. “Everyone knows what happened in my neighborhood a week ago… they shot a guy and killed him,” he said at the July board of trustees meeting.

Jackson intends to use the delay in the renewal of the contract, which puts City College in charge of disbursing the funding for the academy, to negotiate changes in its curriculum. “We’re funding a new academy. So the best I can do is ask, do we have any kind of control over what they teach at the police academy?” he asked.

Dr. Fred Chavaria, chair of the administration of justice department, told the board that the College’s role is to “approve their courses, and run their courses through our curriculum committee.”

It was perfect timing – without the contract  the SFPD and City College’s relationship could be put into question, giving Jackson the leverage to change policy in the police academy for years to come.

His proposed reform comes in three parts: new curriculum emphasizing neighborhood relations, a neighborhood “ambassador” program to introduce new recruits to  people in the community and a local hire law requiring  a portion of new officers to live within San Francisco city limits.

“This is born out of a young man being shot in the neck. I’m damned determined to, with my little piece of authority, make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Jackson said in a phone interview.

Shock and Anger
By all official police and mainstream media accounts, the SFPD made no missteps during or after the shooting.

The SFPD’s official recount of the event is clear on these points: Kenneth Harding was aboard a T train when police asked for his proof of transit. He immediately ran, drew a weapon and fired at the officers. At some point in the firefight Harding shot himself in the neck, committing suicide before the police could land a single shot. His gun fell far from his body and was stolen by a bystander. The gun was later recovered.

Jackson questions part of the account.  “…there is no recording of the shell shot from his own gun to his neck,” he said, adamant about the possibility of the police being the ones who killed Harding.

Trust from the Bayview area then must be at an all time low, because no matter what facts they release, one thing is clear: few there believe the cops.

Police Chief Greg Suhr’s Bayview community meeting at the Bayview Opera House was packed with over 200 shouting people, packed shoulder to shoulder and yelling over one another like commuters on the 38 Geary.

“The people that know me know that I’ll hear you.” Suhr pleaded, who could barely be heard himself.

Every time the Chief tried to speak the crowd swelled to cut him off. “What about profiling?” shouted a young-looking man, ”Who killed my damn son, who murdered him?” screamed a woman whose voice gave out as she screamed it.

Through it all the Chief didn’t flinch, never changing his expression: intense concentration, striving to hear the different concerns in a room full of loud, palpable anger.

Chris Jackson cited the Bayview Opera House fiasco as a perfect example of why the police need to re-acquaint themselves with the city they serve. “He had to leave the meeting with ten officers shielding him. He was fearing for his safety. He was Bayview commander for ten years, and they have so little trust for him.”

One thing was for sure, Jackson said, “this never would have happened in any other neighborhood in San Francisco.”

The Police Chief’s friends in Bayview
“I would like to congratulate Chief Suhr on his promotion, he has always been here for us and we wish him well,” Reverend Walker said from the podium, giving a bow of his head as he spoke.

The second community meeting was held at the Southeast Facilities Commission just past Silver ave. And was a far cry from the rage at the Opera House.

For one, the high-ceiling room was half empty: there were 22 heads in the room, not counting the seven commissioners and six uniformed officers in attendance.

Secondly, almost every person that stood at the podium to air concerns to the Chief had something glowing to say about the police in the neighborhood, and especially about Suhr in particular.

Reverend Walker is an African-American man who, though older, stood with visible strength, and recounted a story about bringing a new Bayview police captain around the neighborhood some years back.

The first woman whose door they knocked on jumped back when she saw them, because “usually when the police come to your house it’s because someone you know has been shot.” But when he explained they were there just to say hi, “she opened up and we just started talking.”

Standing behind his podium the Chief smiled and replied, “I believe police-work is all about relationships. The time to introduce yourself is not in a crisis.”

It was some time after the sun went down behind Suhr’s back that a woman named Naima Smith stood at the podium to make an observation that highlighted the main difference between the two community meetings.

“Where are the young people?” she demanded of the room. Heads turned and looked around as people realized that in fact, most of the people in the room appeared to be at least in their early forties. Easily half of the audience was obviously elderly.

“We have to engage them!” she finished. The room, which applauded most of the speakers, became suddenly silent.

Older people have more trust in the police, he said, because they’re from a different era, when police actually lived in the communities they served. “Then it was Mr. Johnson from around the corner, not just officer Johnson. The officer had to come back and live there. They felt there was a real buy-in,” he said.

The aging-out of police support is why he believes his proposal to re-connect cops with the community is now more important than ever.

Will Jackson’s changes work?
In an interview after the meeting, Chief Suhr agreed with most of the criticisms behind Jackson’s proposed reforms but seemed skeptical they could all actually work.

“We [the SFPD] actually had a local hire policy in place in the 80’s,” he said. “It was struck down around then because it was ruled unconstitutional.” He said that instead The City could look into ways to add incentives for cops to live within San Francisco.

He cocked his head and winced when told about the idea of more hours for social sensitivity training. “We already have, I think,  some of the highest percentages of social sensitivity training for any police in the country,” he claimed.

Jackson felt that current classes were too broad, and his research led him to think that more targeted neighborhood relations training would be better time spent. Hearing this, Suhr seemed surprised and agreed that it would be something worth pursuing.

Trustee Jackson intends on bringing his proposals to the next Board of Trustees meeting on August 25, just a day after this paper’s first publication. He says he will continue to refine his ideas for the academy with the board, and they will vote to give City College Chancellor Don Griffin the power to negotiate them with the police.

When asked if he was proud of the new ideas he’s bringing to the force, Jackson replied “I have to say I’m not proud of it, because this is something that shouldn’t have happened. My legislation wont give back this young man’s life… I hate writing legislation of things people should have in their hearts to do.”

Comments are closed.

The Guardsman