SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco Police Department will be the first in the nation to voluntarily agree to state oversight after the U.S. government ended an Obama-era program aimed at easing tensions amid fatal police shootings of black men across the country, officials announced Monday.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said his office will oversee the implementation of nearly 300 reforms recommended by federal officials to help the San Francisco department rebuild community trust.
At least 15 law enforcement agencies nationwide had been receiving nonbinding federal advice and technical assistance to improve practices involving use of force, racial bias, recruitment and other issues.
However, the DOJ opted in September to stop providing resources or guidance for the Community Oriented Policing Services, or COPS, program.
Instead, the department announced the program would focus on tackling such issues as violent crime and gangs to more closely reflect the Trump administration's law-and-order agenda.
"We made a promise to our residents and to our communities that we were going to transform our police department — and partnering with Attorney General Becerra will allow us to follow through on that pledge," Mayor Mark Farrell said.
Becerra, who has filed a number of lawsuits over Trump administration policies, said the federal government should not abandon local law enforcement agencies that reach out for support.
Then-Mayor Ed Lee called for a federal review of the San Francisco Police Department in 2016, after officers exchanged racist and homophobic text messages and 26-year-old Mario Woods was shot by police.
The shooting of Woods, a black man suspected in a stabbing, was caught on video and sparked protests that led to the resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr.
The DOJ found that San Francisco police used force against blacks more often than other racial groups and also stopped African-American drivers at a disproportionately high rate.
Lee, who died suddenly in December, reached out to the state attorney general's office to continue the program after the Trump administration changed course, Becerra said.
One reform being implemented calls for having officers document all contacts made on streets and elsewhere, Becerra said.
Police Chief William Scott, who replaced Suhr, said his department has applied more than half of the recommendations and seen results. In 2017, use of force decreased 18 percent and complaints against officers dropped 8.5 percent, he said.
Scott said he was pleased to have an independent party overseeing the reforms because "it gives us credibility, transparency and more importantly, this is about maintaining and building trust with the community that we serve."
Becerra said the California Department of Justice will evaluate how police are applying the recommendations and make public reports.
"This agreement with the city and SFPD ... serves as a prime example of state and local authorities collaborating in the absence of help from Washington," he said.
Becerra stopped short of explaining where the resources would come from and how the oversight would work.
Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, said the role of the state attorney general's office remains undefined.
"What's not clear is whether it will simply be an adviser or whether they will have a legalistic role," Wexler said.
NAACP San Francisco President Amos Brown criticized the federal Justice Department for withdrawing its support of the COPS program, saying the move is "not about pursuing liberty and justice for all, but only privilege and opportunity and power for certain people who happen to not look like me."