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Mayor Breed loses sway over police oversight in San Francisco

San Francisco Mayor London Breed, left, and San Francisco Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone, right. | The Standard

Mayor London Breed has lost sway over a body with the power to discipline officers, set policy and choose leaders for the San Francisco Police Department.

Mayoral appointee Max Carter-Oberstone cast the decisive vote Wednesday in a 4-3 decision to elect himself vice president and Cindy Elias president of the Police Commission. 

He broke from fellow Breed appointees Larry Yee, Jim Bryne and Debra Walker, who seemed ready to support Yee as president and keep Elias vice president.

The vote matters because the commission president controls the agenda for a body that not only imposes serious discipline against officers and sets policy for the department, but has the authority to fire the police chief.

While Breed can also fire the chief on her own, the mayor has to choose a successor from a pool of candidates selected by the commission—although she can reject the nominations and ask for more options.

The decision comes at a time when SFPD Chief Bill Scott is more vulnerable to public scrutiny.

Until June, Breed and her chief had District Attorney Chesa Boudin to absorb blame for San Francisco’s crime problems. But voters recalled Boudin, and Breed appointed his chief critic, Brooke Jenkins, as successor.

Breed’s spokesperson, Jeff Cretan, confirmed that Carter-Oberstone broke from the mayor with his vote Wednesday.

“It is the responsibility of the Police Commission to choose its leadership,” Cretan said. “That being said, the mayor would have preferred to have Larry Yee serve as president.”

Elias, a former public defender and the most tenured member of the commission, is part of a minority bloc appointed by the Board of Supervisors that’s typically more willing to challenge Scott—and, by extension, Breed. 

Just last week, Elias and fellow board appointee Kevin Benedicto pushed back against Breed’s proposal to significantly expand the use of live surveillance cameras by police.

Elias has led the commission as vice president since the last elected president, Malia Cohen, stepped down in March to run for state controller.

This is the first time a board appointee will lead the commission since 2018, when the late Julius Turman stepped down shortly before his death.

Since Breed first appointed him late last year, Carter-Oberstone has been more willing than other mayoral appointees to question Scott. Carter-Oberstone is the driving force behind a hotly contested proposal to ban officers from making certain traffic stops in a bid to reduce racial disparities.

Carter-Oberstone, an attorney who completed a fellowship with New York University School of Law’s Policing Project, declined to comment on his vote.

Cretan said Breed supported Yee as president because the Police Commission has not focused enough on public safety concerns—particularly around attacks on Asian seniors. Yee is a Chinatown community fixture and labor leader who worked in telecommunications before his retirement.

Cretan said Yee “believes in advancing both public safety and reforms, and does not follow any particular ideology, which is really what this city needs right now. … It would have delivered a powerful message to have a Chinese leader serving as the head of the Police Commission.”

Reached by phone, Walker made a similar argument but said the mayor did not ask her to support Yee.

Walker said she came up with the idea herself when she met with Yee shortly before her appointment and asked if he was interested in becoming president.

“She never called me about who to support,” Walker said. “I thought that Larry would be good just because of all that was going on right now.”

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