By Joe Fitzgerald
The San Francisco Police Department and the city’s Public Defender Jeff Adachi have been lampooning each other in the media lately, and it seems like the cops feel they are the true victims in this tale of corruption.
Instead of responding so defensively to every legitimate accusation, SFPD brass need to use this opportunity to clean up the department’s image, which now stands battered and untrusted. Adachi can help.
Like a man with a voodoo doll, Adachi has been needling our boys in blue at every pressure point — misuse of evidence in crime labs, withholding officer’s criminal backgrounds from defense attorneys, the size of officer pensions, and the more recent debacle at the Henry Hotel, where police were caught on video searching suspects’ residences without warrants.
Adachi vs. the SFPD
Adachi’s role as public defender is to ensure even those on the lowest rung of society’s ladder get their fair due, and the cops role is to push for as much leeway as they can in order to enforce public safety. It can make cops seem totalitarian, which makes it easy to paint them as the bad guys. This is clearly not the case.
But the police have responded like the allegations of perjury are personal attacks on their saintliness, seemingly forgetting their actions have profound consequences on the lives of the people they serve.
Acting Police Chief Jeff Godown responded defensively in a recent news conference, laughably asking reporters to imagine how difficult it would be to write down every detail of an incident report relating to a crime.
He offered up small “fixes” to the allegations, saying the SFPD would conduct an audit of the plainclothes operations, “and will review policies and procedures, and see if there’s anything that has to be changed.”
A canned response if ever there was, and inadequate for dealing with systemic problems that have been prevailing for years.
A history of corruption
Adachi said none of what we’re seeing is an isolated incident, but “teams or units… that appear to be engaged in committing acts of perjury almost nonchalantly.”
That’s not to say the cops should be criminalized or their achievements in the city discounted. According to their own statistics, even though there were more homicides this year to date compared to last year (17 versus 12), total violent crime in San Francisco is down 13 percent versus the same time last year, and overall homicides have dropped significantly since 2008.
Improvements in the city as a whole don’t matter so much when seen through the lens of one individual, though.
“I remember I had one case where I flat out proved the officer was lying — no question,” Adachi said. “The judge was upset at me, and sentenced my client – almost as if to challenge a police officer’s version was sacrosanct.”
If cops don’t have repercussions for lying in the highest levels of our justice system, what incentive do they have to get the job done without taking shortcuts? It’s not even a question of cop ethics at that point, but human nature.
How we got here
It’s human nature to take the advantages you can, but when the cops do it, innocents suffer.
Cops can get hardened to the job, and as Godown described, the reports all tend to blur after a while. It’s important then that the cops take on tactics that help them maintain relationships with the people they serve.
Newly minted District Attorney George Gascón, also former police chief, introduced the CompStat system to the SFPD under his watch as chief. The CompStat system is very complex, but at its heart provides detailed statistics on where and when crimes happen in the city. This leads cops to have goals that revolve around numbers alone, pulling uniformed officers off of the streets and chasing down percentages and number crunching people’s lives.
Community policing is the real solution
Beat cops would be more likely to uphold the rights of citizens they encounter if they were out there everyday getting to know those citizens, building relationships with informants and preventing crime as opposed to simply responding to new numbers.
The next step
Gascón brought in the FBI to investigate the unit that discarded the constitution under his watch.
It’s a step in the right direction, but it doesn’t go far enough.
The SFPD are no villains, but should concede they cannot trust officers on their word alone to avoid taking shortcuts in difficult cases. Godown and Gascón should use the FBI investigation to objectively clean house from top to bottom, instating clear policies that reinforce the department’s stated commitment to honesty and justice.