The State of California: How Policy Can Change Police Culture

Doug Sovern
June 02, 2020 - 10:44 pm
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    KCBS Radio’s Doug Sovern is off this week. Filling in for him as co-host is Sonoma State University Political Scientist David McCuan.

    Curfews remain in effect in cities around the Bay Area hoping to stem the tide of violent protests and looting. As protests over police tactics continue, some officials are already taking action on the policymaking side to shift the culture in police departments. 

    Dr. McCuan, how will proactive policymaking play a role as these protests continue?

    DM: Well if you look at and think about our politics and institutions, they’re by design based on old models, so the ability to be responsive is quite difficult. It was Justice Louis Brandeis who talked about laboratories of democracy and using states and localities to do that. How responsive institutions can be under these circumstances is something we want to look at today.

    On today’s “The State of California,” Dr. McCuan, as well as KCBS Radio’s Patti Reising and Jeff Bell spoke with San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin.

    You made an announcement Tuesday afternoon prohibiting the hiring of officers with prior misconduct. Tell us about that effort and how that would work.

    CB: The priority in this moment, as we look at the future of policing, is to start building trust between communities and law enforcement. And to do that, we need to have more transparency, and we need to have assurances that San Francisco is not going to hire anyone from another jurisdiction where they have suffered a serious misconduct complaint that’s been sustained.

    What that means is, given the real blackbox that protects law enforcement personnel files from public scrutiny, it means asking the Civil Service Commission here in San Francisco to create a policy that, as a blanket rule, prohibits hiring officers or sheriff’s personnel when they have a serious misconduct history in another jurisdiction. 

    And it’s really important, when you think about the power and the trust that we, as a community, put in our law enforcement: We give them guns, uniforms, badges, tremendous power to arrest and detain and, even in some cases, to kill. If we’re going to give that kind of power and those kinds of resources to people, we need to make sure that like the majority of officers that we do have in San Francisco serve with pride and integrity, that they’re minimizing use of force, not escalating situations or using violence unnecessarily. 

    How is what you are proposing today going to change how law enforcement interacts with communities in distress that are in upheaval day-to-day, not just in San Francisco but through the country?

    CB: It’s a first step among many and obviously we need our community members—the folks who are out protesting by the hundreds of thousands, by the millions across this country—we need them to know that there are real consequences for officers who commit serious misconduct. We need them to know that San Francisco will not simply hire rejects from another department.

    If we have blanket rules in every jurisdiction that we will not hire officers who have a history of serious misconduct, it will lead people who have a penchant towards violence, dishonesty and racial profiling to seek different kinds of jobs where they’re not carrying guns and policing our communities. 

    You also announced policy changes earlier this week in regards to police unions. Tell us about that.

    CB: My office and every district attorney’s office in the State of California, and across the country at some point or another, will be asked to independently review use of force by officers against civilians. We must be able to review those incidents with the same independence and neutrality that we bring to every other criminal investigation.

    The problem is that police unions are very well financed and very active in local, state and even national politics. They have, of course, every right to be involved in politics, but it creates a conflict of interest. District attorneys like myself have an ethical obligation not to seek their endorsements and not to accept campaign contributions from those unions. Otherwise, when we’re investigating their members, who they are defending and paying for the defense of, it will and does create a conflict of interest.

    How does your office play a role in defusing the more violent protests and engage the city and is there anything you would like to do better? 

    CB: My office and I have been very proactive in discouraging any violent, and even non-violent, criminal activity in the context of these protests. Obviously we discourage the graffiti, the destruction of property, as well as the violent crimes that target humans and police officers. It is not only against the law but detrimental to the broader cause that I, and many others, support. We can advocate for transparency and accountability, we can ensure that serious misconduct by police has serious consequences and we don’t need to commit crimes or engage in violent, destructive behavior to do it. 

    But it’s really important to not overstate what’s happening. 

    CB: The vast majority of protesters are peaceful. I, myself, have attended peaceful rallies and protests this week. We have to remember why the protests are happening and not allow the extreme criminal activity of a few on the fringe to distract us from this righteous national mass movement for police accountability and in favor of ending historic racism and discrimination, primarily against Black men. 

    Can you tell us what will become of people being arrested for violating the city’s curfew? 

    CB: We are looking at those situations on a case-by-case basis. Obviously, we want to do our part to support the mayor, support the police, to keep the peace, we want to encourage peaceful protests and we want to make sure we put an end to the looting, and we are working closely with the police department and looking at every case as it comes in.