Wrongful convictions cost California taxpayers $282 million over 24 years, study finds

As reported by the Washington Post:

A California research project tried to do something no one’s ever done: determine the total cost of wrongful convictions. That cost being not just the settlements paid to innocent defendants, but the unnecessary costs of prosecuting and incarcerating them, plus the total legal bills of their criminal trials and appeals.

Beginning the project in 2012 and working backwards to 1989, the study found 692 people who were convicted of felonies in California but whose cases were later dismissed or acquitted on retrial. Those people spent a total of 2,346 years in custody and cost California taxpayers an estimated $282 million when adjusted for inflation, according to the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, which released the study last week.

Now for some scale: Those 692 failed convictions over 24 years were part of a California system that convicts more than 200,000 people every year. Some may argue, the report notes, that 692 mistakes over more than two decades “reflects an acceptable rate of error. We reject the proposition that an acceptable rate of error can apply to proceedings that impact people’s lives in the way that criminal prosecution can…Just as with airline safety and medical mistakes, the acceptable rate of error is zero and that should be the goal.”

The researchers also note …

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Superbowl Spotlight Bad Timing for SF Police

San Francisco, CA, USAThe global spotlight on the Bay Area created by Super Bowl 50 couldn’t have come at a worse time for the San Francisco Police Department. The fatal December shooting of Mario Woods, a young African American stabbing suspect who was shot by five officers as he walked away from them, continues to trigger increasingly regular protests.

Now the U.S. Justice Department has concluded that there is sufficient evidence of wrongdoing that it is going to review SFPD and its history. Yahoo News has details:

“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 Lynch said in a statement.

At the conclusion of the review, the Justice Department will give San Francisco police a list of best practices it can follow to ensure fairness in its interactions with citizens.

San Francisco police will then report back to the Justice Department on a periodic basis to show it is following the practices, a Justice Department official said.

The ACLU of Northern California and African American activists welcomed the announcement.

Officers asked to pledge not to be racists

Meanwhile, San Francisco police are also being called out, in essence, by their chief, who is asking them to pledge to not act like racists, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

“People that would use racial epithets, slurs and things like that clearly fall below the minimum standard of being a police officer,” Police Chief Greg Suhr [said]. “A cop needs to show character and point that out.”

Suhr noted that a website — notonmywatchsfpd.org — had been launched to emphasize what he expects out of his officers. This is from its “About” description:

SFPD created the Not On My Watch initiative … in an effort to improve relationships between police officers and the diverse communities they serve.

This first-of-its-kind pledge is about recognizing that we need to guard against our own implicit biases,” said SFPD Chief Greg Suhr, “and to call out anyone who is intolerant or bigoted.”

Since 2011, SFPD policy has prohibited biased policing. The inspiration for the Not On My Watch project came from SFPD Sergeant Yulanda Williams, president of Officers for Justice. “It tells everyone that I am going to treat them with dignity and respect,” said Sgt. Williams. “And at the same time, we’re encouraging them to trust us, respect us and allow us to help them by delivering the type of police service that makes for viable, stable communities.”

Selling police chief as idealist may prove difficult

This initiative may play well in San Francisco and nationallly, but Suhr’s critics will question his sincerity and idealism. He’s had to deal with two rounds of harsh news coverage since last summer.

The city had to spend nearly $1.5 million to defend him from a whistleblower’s lawsuit with embarrassing allegations andpersuasive evidence that Suhr mishandled a domestic violence case to help a friend.

He’s also accused of giving special breaks to a family friend in his attempt to secure a job as a San Francisco officer.

S.F. police chief to renew push to equip officers with stun guns

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr plans to reintroduce the contentious issue of equipping officers with stun guns at next week’s Police Commission meeting.

The chief said after Wednesday’s meeting that conductive energy devices — better known by the name of the most popular brand, Tasers — will be referenced in the new draft of the department’s revised use-of-force policy that he will present next week.

Though he would not provide specific details as to what he is proposing with Tasers, he has tried in the past to arm only officers trained in crisis intervention, to use on subjects in mental distress with whom officers can’t reason.

The revival of a stun gun plan has long been anticipated in the wake of the fatal shooting of Mario Woods, a 26-year-old man whose family said he suffered from psychiatric issues. The review of the department’s policies is part of a series of reforms the city has proposed following the Dec. 2 incident.

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San Bernardino Plans to Cut Pensions of Retired Police Officers

police-badgeSan Bernardino’s plan to exit bankruptcy, possibly next year, cuts the pensions of 23 retired police officers who receive an unusual supplement to their regular CalPERS pension.

The supplement paid through a private-sector firm, the Public Agency Retirement System, boosts pensions to the same amount now common among police and firefighters, a standard set by the Highway Patrol in a CalPERS-sponsored bill, Senate Bill 400 in 1999.

San Bernardino provided the PARS supplement from 2004 to 2008, when the 23 police officers retired, as a lower-cost way to be competitive in the job market before adopting the more expensive CalPERS formula that critics say is “unsustainable.”

“PARS plan retirees will be the only retired employees in the state of California to have their retirement compensation reduced through bankruptcy proceeding,” a member of the PARS retiree subcommittee, Robert Curtis, said in a court filing this month.

Curtis said unfairly reducing pensions up to 12 percent could result in personal bankruptcy, the loss of homes and health coverage, and other hardships. He asked for a city-provided attorney to represent the PARS retirees.

San Bernardino’s plan to exit bankruptcy would reject the PARS contracts, distribute a $1.8 million trust fund to the 23 retirees, and make no more payments to the supplement, which is said to be underfunded by about $3 million.

The city thought it had an agreement with the PARS retirees last month. But in a court filing last week, the city suggested the emergence of opposition since then could result in even less generous treatment of the PARS retirees.

New public pension supplements, like the one given the 23 San Bernardino police officers, are now banned under a pension reform pushed through Legislature by Gov. Brown three years ago.

San Bernardino can argue that phasing out the PARS supplement leaves the 23 retirees with the pension offered when they were hired, like other officers who retired before the supplement began in 2004.

But the same cannot be said of pensions from the California Public Employees Retirement System and other public retirement systems covered by the “California rule,” a series of state court decisions.

Public pensions can go up but not down — even if, as with SB 400, a pension increase is retroactive, immediately creating debt because the increase was not paid for by previous employer-employee contributions.

A San Bernardino disclosure statement filed Nov. 25 said the city had roughly $323 million in CalPERS pension unfunded liabilities when filing for bankruptcy in 2012.

“These unfunded actuarial liabilties were created primarily by the common council’s decisions to approve enhanced pension benefits to city employees in 2001 and 2007,” said the city filing.

Contributing factors, said the filing, were unfunded retroactive pension increases, heavy CalPERS investment losses during the financial crisis, and an increasing number of retirees with larger pensions and fewer active workers to help pay for them.

SBchart

Without cutting pensions, the San Bernardino plan is expected to produce a healthy general fund reserve of 15 percent or more through 2034, according to an update issued by city consultants early this month.

U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Meredith Jury said in October she wanted more discussion of rising pension costs, given the “media perception” that Stockton and Vallejo are in trouble (strongly denied by the city managers) because they failed to cut pensions in bankruptcy.

San Bernardino has deeper problems than the other two cities: a lower average income and weak local economy, years of factional political infighting, and mismanagement that led to a new finance director discovering the city was on the brink of not making payroll.

After an emergency bankruptcy filing in 2012, San Bernardino took the unprecedented step of skipping its payment to CalPERS for most of a fiscal year, running up a debt of $13.5 million and risking termination of its CalPERS contract.

Hoping at first to get aid from CalPERS by stretching out payments, what San Bernardino got was a legal battle and a mediated agreement to repay CalPERS with interest by June 2016, followed by a penalty bringing the total to $18 million.

Regular San Bernardino general fund payments to CalPERS increased from $6 million in fiscal 2000-1 to a projected $22.6 million this fiscal year, said the November city filing.

CalPERS employer rates for San Bernardino police and firefighters were 14 percent of pay in fiscal 2000-1, 39 percent of pay in fiscal 2012-13, and are projected to be 60 percent in fiscal 2019-20.

In other developments, City Manager Alan Parker, who clashed with Mayor Carey Davis, resigned effective Dec. 31. Last week Police Chief Jarrod Berguan was appointed interim manager until Mark Scott, Burbank city manager, takes the post Feb. 8.

Burrtec was selected in November to take over city waste management and retain full-time city employees, part of a strategy to cut costs by contracting for services. The city expects a one-time $5 million payment and annual savings of $2.8 million.

A federal appeals court last week upheld Judge Jury’s ruling that the city charter does not prevent contracting for fire services. Annexation of San Bernardino by the county fire district is expected to yield a $143 parcel tax and lower pension costs, netting $11 million a year.

At a hearing last week, Jury moved on from pensions and asked for an explanation of why the San Bernardino plan only gives some creditors 1 percent of what they are owed and does not raise taxes to pay more debt, the San Bernardino Sun reported.

Voters approved a 1-cent sales tax increase in Vallejo and a ¾-cent sales tax increase in Stockton. The San Bernardino plan would pay only about 1 percent of the amount owed on a $50 million pension obligation bond.

Among the major remaining opponents of the plan are the holder of the unsecured pension bond, EEPK, which is a subsidiary of Commerzbank of Germany, and the insurer of the bond, Ambac.

A request from the San Bernardino bondholders to be treated the same as pensions was rejected by Jury last May, and the ruling is being appealed. Mediation on Nov. 18 and 19 failed to produce a settlement.

Early this month in the Stockton bankruptcy, a federal appeals court rejected an appeal of a 1 percent payment on $30 million in unsecured bonds held by Franklin Templeton, which argued creditors were treated unfairly because pensions are untouched.

Jury predicted last week that the confirmation trial on the San Bernardino plan to exit bankruptcy will begin this spring or summer, the Sun reported. The fourth anniversary of the bankruptcy is Aug. 1.

Reporter Ed Mendel covered the Capitol in Sacramento for nearly three decades, most recently for the San Diego Union-Tribune. More stories are at Calpensions.com. Posted 28 Dec 15

This piece was originally published by CalPensions.com

LAPD awarded $1M by U.S. Department of Justice to buy body cameras

A reported by the L.A. Daily News:

The Los Angeles Police Department was awarded $1 million by the U.S. Department of Justice Monday for the purchase of body cameras, despite a complaint by the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that the department’s policies on the use and release of the footage hinders transparency.

The LAPD was one of 73 agencies across the country to be awarded a total of $19.3 million in funding for the purchase of cameras. Pasadena was awarded $250,000.

Los Angeles officials had asked the federal government for funding to purchase 700 cameras. The city ultimately wants to purchase 7,000 cameras to outfit all of its field officers. The department already has about 860 cameras purchased through private donations. Distribution of those cameras began this month at three LAPD stations. …

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Transparency of Oakland PD Body Cam Footage Sparks Controversy

Police carSeveral local police forces in California got on the police body-cameras bandwagon well before police killings around the nation in the summer of 2014 triggered a broad push for their adoption. The Rialto Police Department was the focus of a 2013 New York Times story that emphasized how much body cameras improved interactions between officers and the public.

But in Oakland, it appears authorities will only release the body-camera videos when they exonerate police, and that the video will be kept from the public and the media in other circumstances on the grounds that it is part of an ongoing investigation. The East Bay Express recently reported on how the Oakland police are dealing with four police killings. In two cases, Police Chief Sean Whent won’t release any body-cam footage. In the other two cases, police wouldn’t release the footage to the public. Instead, on Aug. 19, the Oakland Police Department held a screening for 11 members of the media.

This account is from the East Bay Express:

[The] videos included police body camera footage taken by officers who were chasing Richard Linyard and Nathaniel Wilks (in two separate incidents). On July 19, Linyard was allegedly fleeing the police on foot when he was later found wedged between two buildings. A coroner’s report said Linyard died from injuries he suffered when he was apparently stuck between the buildings.

On August 12, Wilks allegedly fled the police in a vehicle and then on foot. Several officers confronted and shot Wilks near the intersection of 27th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way.

Watson said OPD showed videos to select members of the media in order to dispel inaccurate reports that officers beat Linyard, and claims that Wilks was shot in the back. Both incidents sparked protests. “We held the viewing in the interest of the public, to be able to share information through fair and balanced reporting,” said Watson.

Watson, however, said that the video footage will not be released to the broader public, and that OPD believes the California Public Records Act allows the department to withhold the footage because it is evidence in several ongoing investigations.

‘Completely wrong’ to withhold some video

As the Bay Area News Group reported, giving the police the right to pick and choose which videos to release outraged local civil-rights lawyer Jim Chanin. “I think it’s completely wrong to have selective showings of one shooting and not another shooting, depending on how the department feels . … There’s an inference now that if (police) don’t show you a video, there could be something wrong or improper about (another) shooting,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Sacramento, a bill that would establish statewide procedures on access to and use of policy body-camera footage appears to have failed, U-T San Diego columnist Steve Greenhut wrote on Friday.

In April, a comprehensive bill by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, passed its initial committee vote. Per its official description, “Assembly Bill 66 would provide guidelines about when the cameras are to be operated, require notification of those being recorded, and prohibit law-enforcement officers involved in serious use-of-force incidents that result in serious bodily injury or death from viewing the video until they have filed an initial report.” Whent, the Oakland police chief, testified infavor of the bill.

But Weber’s bill was effectively killed within weeks. As Dan Walters wrote in the Sacramento Bee:

Weber’s body camera bill was beaten up in the Assembly Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee. Police unions, whose endorsements politicians crave, strongly opposed it as unfair, and the committee insisted that only local authorities decide when cops can see body videos.

Originally published by CalWatchdog.com

San Jose City Council Capitulates to Police Union Power

“He told the class to take advantage of the academy, and then find jobs elsewhere. The police union tries to get us to leave the department.”

–  Anonymous source to NBC Bay Area, television report “Another San Jose Police Recruit Says Union Tried to Get Cadets to ‘Find Jobs Elsewhere’,” Oct. 28, 2014 (excerpt begins at 1:38 in report).

San Jose Police DepartmentA precedent setting new development in San Jose last week provides abundant evidence of just how powerful local government unions really are in California. As reported Monday in San Jose Inside and elsewhere, an embattled City Council has tentatively approved a new contract with San Jose’s police union that awards them “a 5 percent ‘retention’ bonus and an 8 percent raise over the next 16 months. In addition, former officers who return to the force in the next year can claim a 5 percent signing bonus.”

More significantly, at the same time, the San Jose City Council has tentatively agreed to drop their appeal of a court ruling that overturned a key part of a San Jose pension reform, a re-examination of the so-called “California Rule.” As pension expert Ed Mendel reported in PublicCEO, “The ‘California rule’ is a series of state court decisions widely believed to mean that the pension offered on the date of hire becomes a vested right, protected by contract law, that can only be cut if offset by a new benefit of comparable value.”

In practical terms, this means that pension benefit formulas, according to the California Rule, cannot even be trimmed for future work performed by existing employees. San Jose’s pension reform Measure B, passed by 70 percent of voters in 2012, presented city employees with a choice – they could either contribute an additional 16 percent towards their pension benefits via payroll withholding, or they could accept lower pension benefit accruals from then on. Nothing they had earned to-date would have been taken away from them.

Despite legal opinions that claim the California Rule is not well established law, and despite that the California Rule is contrary to the law governing public sector pensions in most states, and contrary to all law governing private sector pensions everywhere, San Jose’s local elected officials have capitulated.

THE INHERENT HYPOCRISY OF THE ‘CALIFORNIA RULE’

It is difficult to overstate just how hypocritical the union’s position is on the issue of modifying pension benefit formulas. Because the problems with pensions began back in 1999, when Senate Bill 400 raised pension benefit accruals per year for the California Highway Patrol. Within a few years, most every agency in California followed suit. And these pension benefit enhancements were applied retroactively to the date of the employees’ hire.

That is, starting in 1999, agencies changed the pension benefit formula so that, for example, police and fire pension accruals were not just increasing from 2 percent to 3 percent per year from then on, but retroactively to the day each employee was hired. So someone who would have earned a pension equivalent to 2 percent of their final salary times the years they worked would now earn a pension equivalent to 3 percent of their salary times the years they worked, even if they were going to retire within the next year or two.

What San Jose Measure B tried to do was not roll back pension benefits from 3 percent per year to 2 percent per year for years already worked. It only tried to reduce the benefit accrual, prospectively, for years still to be worked. And even that was too much for these unions.

THE DEVASTATING COSTS OF SAN JOSE’S POLICE/FIRE RETIREMENT BENEFITS

If taxpayers could afford to pay these pension benefits, there might be a stronger argument to preserve them. But San Jose’s independent Police and Fire Department Retirement Plan, according to their most recent financial report, is not in great shape financially. Keeping it afloat requires staggering sums of money from taxpayers that are only going to increase each year. Here are highlights:

(1) The plan as of June 30, 2014 (most recent data available) was 77.5 percent funded (page 114). This means that instead of earning their officially projected annual return on investment of 7.125 percent per year, just to avoid becoming more underfunded, they will have to earn 9.2 percent per year. Just to stay even. That is their so-called “risk free” rate of return.

(2) The fund truly is “risk free” to participants, because the taxpayers pay most of the expense and cover the losses when the market fails. In FYE 6-30-2014, police and fire employees contributed $21.1 million into their retirement fund, and taxpayers (the city of San Jose) contributed $123.6 million (page 69), nearly six times as much. How many “six to one” matching contributions are out there for corporate 401(k) plans?

(3) The unfunded liability for the San Jose Police and Fire Retirement Plan was $806 million (page 114) as of June 30, 2013 (most recent actuarial data), equal to 436 percent of payroll. Or looking at this another way, the city’s pension contribution was $123.6 million, whereas their “covered payroll” was $184.6 million. That is, for every dollar San Jose pays to put police and firefighters on the street, they have to pay 67 cents to the pension fund.

(4) It’s not just pensions. The San Jose Police and Fire Retirement Plan includes city funded retirement health insurance benefits. How’s that fund doing? As of June 30, 2013 (most recent data), that plan was 11 percent funded, with an unfunded liability of $625.5 million (page 65).

(5) If you consolidate the financial data for San Jose’s Police and Fire Retirement Plan’s pension and healthcare (OPEB) plans, the most recent statements indicate they are 67 percent funded, with a total unfunded liability of $1.4 billion. If San Jose were to responsibly reduce their total unfunded liability for public safety retirement benefits, they would be paying far more than 67 cents for every dollar of payroll.

THE MISLEADING EMPHASIS ON AN EXODUS OF OFFICERS

Throughout this battle between fiscal realists and the police union in San Jose, the police have maintained that officers were leaving the city to work elsewhere or to retire. There’s no question that their ranks have thinned, perhaps alarmingly. According to SJ Inside, “the agency [currently has] 943 sworn officers out of a budgeted 1,109 positions.” And historically San Jose’s police department has had as many as 1,400 officers. But is the union thwarting efforts to fill the ranks?

Several news reports suggest that could be the case – starting with the local NBC television affiliate’s report quoted earlier. That anonymous source corroborated what another person stated publicly. According to the San Jose Mercury guest column entitled “San Jose police recruit: Union told class to quit right away for good of the department,” former police academy cadet Elyse Rivas writes:

“On the first day of the academy, our orientation included the opportunity to meet Jim Unland, the Police Officers Association’s president. In no uncertain terms, he blamed Measure B for the departure of hundreds of officers — and he told us that it would be better for the department and for us if we would just quit, right then and there. He said that our employment with the department did not help the POA’s cause in proving Measure B was killing the department’s recruitment capabilities. He urged us to find jobs elsewhere.”

Reached for comment earlier today regarding developments in San Jose, former Mayor Chuck Reed agreed with the substance of these allegations. Not only did he confirm reports of union representatives discouraging academy recruits from taking jobs with the department, but he also described other ways they thwarted recruitment:

“There were reports of recruiting events held in the San Jose police union offices where they invited police recruiters in from other cities to encourage active San Jose police officers to take these jobs in other cities.”

Reed also said, “When we were trying to hire officers, we wanted to bring in retired police officers in to do the background checks so we could keep our active officers on the beat – but the union urged retirees to refuse to accept the work.”

In any case, Reed pointed out that the city had determined to reduce the size of the police force back in 2010, well before voters approved Measure B, saying “the police department headcount went down from 1,400 to 1,100 before there was any pension reform.” Reed believes that an ideal headcount for the San Jose police department would not require returning to 1,400, and that getting to the budgeted 1,109 positions would be a good first step.

SO HOW MUCH DO SAN JOSE’S ‘UNDERPAID’ POLICE OFFICERS MAKE?

Getting timely and accurate information on public pay is difficult because financial reports from public entities take a long time to produce and often omit important data. The most recent payroll records publicly available for the city of San Jose are for 2013. According to a search on Transparent California of San Jose city employees with “Police” in their job title, in 2013 there were 260 of them who made over $250,000 in pay and benefits, and an astonishing 806 who made over $200,000 in pay and benefits. Here’s the link:  San Jose city employees, 2013, with “Police” in their job title.

Pension information for San Jose’s retired police officers is complicated by the fact that the data includes firefighters along with police officers. Moreover, the average full-career pension estimates are understated because a significant percentage of the current participants retired before pension benefits were enhanced in San Jose – a process of “continual enhancement” that continued up until 2008. Using 2014 data acquired by Transparent California, the estimated average full career pension for a San Jose police/fire retiree is $99,116 – with guaranteed 3 percent per year cost-of-living increases. The number for recent, post-2008, full-career retirees is undoubtedly much higher. Here is a 2014 roster of all of San Jose’s police/fire retirees – note that individual retirement health benefits (unfunded liability of $625 million) were not provided – certainly adding a value of at least another $10,000 per year.

Are San Jose’s police officers underpaid? The average veteran officer makes pay and benefits worth well over $200,000 per year. Add to that the likely 5 percent “retention bonus, and the 8 percent raise over the next 16 months per the tentative new agreement. You decide.

The personal attacks and confrontational tactics employed by the San Jose police officers union against their political opponents do not reflect well on the fine men and women who staff that department, who perform work of vital importance to society. Whether or not they intentionally urged officers to quit (or never join) the San Jose police force is almost irrelevant, despite abundant evidence that suggests they did. Because their real transgression against the people of San Jose, the taxpayers, the elected officials, and public safety itself, is to insist on levels of pay and benefits for their officers that are far more than the city can afford.

*   *   *

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

Blame game as car break-ins escalate in S.F.

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

An alarming 47 percent spike in San Francisco car break-ins in the first half of this year has prompted a blame game between police, prosecutors and politicians while repeat victims like Kelley Maulbetsch are left feeling exasperated and helpless.

When Maulbetsch walked to her car one morning last week in San Francisco’s Mission District, her usual upbeat demeanor quickly gave way to sour frustration. Someone had smashed a hole in the rear passenger-side window of her Volkswagen Jetta station wagon and made off with the paltry haul — two camping chairs and a music stand.

Pea-size pieces of glass were strewn about her car’s interior while chunks of the window still broke away from the hastily punched hole as she pulled up later that day to In and Out Auto Glass in the city’s Bayview district. …

Click here to read the full article

SF’s Police Chief Orders Officers to Play Nice for Appearance’s Sake

Police carEver since the eruption of violence in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, the nation’s police have come under severe scrutiny for any evidence of racial bias. The deaths of Eric Garner in New York, Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore only intensified the focus on police tactics as buildings burned, protestors stopped freeway and bridge traffic, and cops clashed with civilians. Amid cries that “black lives matter,” widespread riots and further civil unresthave put police on their heels in cities that need their protection the most.

San Francisco police chief Greg Suhr responded to the threat of public turbulence and heightened awareness in a departmental bulletin published on April 27. Titled “Avoiding the ‘Lawful but Awful’ Use of Force,” the chief’s memorandum, number 15-106, began with something very close to an admission that his main concern involved publicity—not the safety of the police and public, but the media image of his subordinates and himself. “A ‘Lawful but Awful’ use of force is a use of force that is within the law and within Department policy,” Suhr wrote, “but an action that produces an undesirable outcome which is tragic not only for the individual(s) involved, but for all those touched by or exposed to the event.”

Reading like a disciplinary lecture from a high school principal, Suhr’s guidance noted that a previous bulletin “requires officers to create time, distance, and establish a rapport with people in crisis who are only a danger to themselves.” Creating “time, distance, and . . . rapport” seems to be bureaucratic jargon mandating that police give people threatening them and others a period for reflection, an opportunity to detach themselves from a confrontation, and an offer of sympathy and comfort. Suhr’s memorandum repeats the formula, embellishing on it and emphasizing that “the strongest officers are those who consider all options—including creating time, distance, and establishing a rapport.” Bulletin 15-106 concludes, in an idiom weak in literacy, “An officer may not discharge a firearm at a person who presents a danger only to him or herself, and there is no reasonable cause to believe that the person poses an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or any other person” (bolded phrase and italics in the original bulletin).

SFPD’s rank and file have interpreted the bulletin as an order to give offenders a “head start” (time) in escaping the scene (distance) of their disputes with law enforcement and ordinary citizens, encouraged by the friendly demeanor (rapport) of police they encounter. Officers of the law, not for the first time, are expected to conduct themselves in the manner of social workers. While such an approach to disorderly and illegal behavior is hardly new, it appears especially inappropriate when outbursts of civil upheaval are spreading.

The mission of police to maintain public order is obstructed in San Francisco, where lawlessness and contempt for the rights of others increase daily. Notwithstanding the technological revolution continuing in nearby Silicon Valley, San Franciscans must contend each day with more homeless occupying the pavements and parks, more aggression against ordinary people attempting to go about their business, and more outright, serious lawbreaking. Faced with growing turmoil, Chief Suhr has commanded his troops to stand down, the better to avoid media hostility.

Police personnel in the city are discontented with the bulletin and the attitude it represents, which they view as requirement for a “hands off” approach to miscreants. For the benefit of police and citizens alike, Suhr should withdraw his memo. But he is unlikely to do so. For those responsible for the tranquility of San Francisco, an image of failure appears preferable to media complications produced by “lawful but awful” use of force. In such an environment, fewer people will feel the call to put on the badge and protect and serve the public.

Can Unionized Police Be Held Accountable for Misconduct?

“We thought [the employees we fired] were inappropriate to be employees of the city.”

– Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks (ret.), in reference to the termination of corrupt police officers, Rampart scandal (late 1990’s)

police-badgeAbout a year ago UnionWatch.org published an editorial asking this question, “How much does professionalism cost,” using as an example the tragic death of Kelly Thomas. In that case, six police officers repeatedly struck with batons and tased an unarmed man, who died a few days later of his injuries. Since that tragedy back in 2011, numerous cases of police misconduct have surfaced, many of them with equally tragic consequences. The latest one, while inexcusable, is more farce than tragedy, involving a team of Santa Ana police officers who recently raided a marijuana dispensary in that city.

The misconduct didn’t involve murderous violence, but it did involve blatantly unprofessional behavior. Once the officers secured the dispensary and ejected the staff and customers, they proceeded to disable the security cameras, and, at least according to the video recording from the camera they neglected to destroy, some went on to gobble up marijuana “edibles.” Watch this video and make up your own mind whether or not these individuals are engaging in conduct appropriate for employees of the Santa Ana police department.

Former Sacramento County Sheriff John McGinness, on his radio talk show, has frequently discussed the issue of police misconduct. He makes an observation that bears repeating – in a population of over 1 million police officers in the United States, it is inevitable that you will have bad apples. It is statistically impossible to have a group of humans that large, where every single individual will be beyond reproach. There will always be a percentage of crooks and thugs who slip through. It can’t be helped.

Critics of police fall roughly into two camps – those who are concerned about police respecting civil rights, and those who are concerned about excessive police pay and benefits. While there’s overlap, these are very distinct concerns. But those who are concerned police overstate the risks of their job in order to justify increasing their pay are often the same ones who overlook the fact that police misconduct can also be overstated. Critics can’t have it both ways. Police fatalities are rare. Police misconduct is also rare.

What can be helped, however, is how police who do cross the line are held accountable.

According to a source at an Orange County blog that covered the pot bust, the supervising officer on the scene was Alex Sanchez, a police sergeant with the city of Santa Ana who in 2013 made $107,952 in regular pay, $27,205 in “other pay,” $16,184 in overtime pay, and earned employer paid benefits of another $68,820. In other words, this officer earned pay and direct benefits during 2013 of $221,162. This rate of pay is not unusual. Take a look at the pay for Santa Ana city employees – note how nearly all of the high paying positions are for police officers.

Citizens have a right to expect better behavior from a police officer who makes this much money. And a police officer who makes this much money should be prepared to be held accountable. In the corporate world, on-the-job drug use, vandalism, or insults directed at a member of a protected status group are all grounds for instant termination. And in the corporate world, despite repeated claims to the contrary by government union propagandists, total compensation packages in excess of $200,000 per year are very unusual. Notwithstanding that incessantly cited handful of rapacious and untouchable Wall Street bankers, corporate managers and executives who make $200,000 or more per year have little or no job security, and are held accountable, and terminated, for transgressions of far less import.

There’s more. When critics of police conduct say police should not consider themselves above the law, they’re right, but they don’t go far enough. Police should not merely obey the law, they should be role models. By their words and deeds they should inspire the rest of us. The destruction of cameras, the needless vandalism, the profanity, and the insults undermine respect for law enforcement, which is the human face of the laws we must obey.

Police unions not only highlight the risk officers face as the reason they deserve excellent pay and benefits, they highlight the professional requirements of the job. Police perform an incredibly difficult job that goes well beyond the physical risk they live with. Every day, they have to deal with uncertain, volatile situations, with agitated individuals and groups, with hostility and disrespect, and with violent criminals. Police work in 2014 America requires more professionalism than ever. That’s why they’re paid like professionals. But with professionalism comes accountability.

Police officers depend on the trust and solidarity of their colleagues. That is a necessary and proper element of an effective police force. But police unions overlay onto that solidarity an us-vs-them mentality, as well as a layer of protection against individual accountability, that at the least may be described as problematic. Police unions, like teachers unions, may consciously proclaim their commitment to the broad public interest, but their organizational agenda invariably pulls them away from the people they serve.

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Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.