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Mayor Breed accuses her reform-minded Police Commission appointee of dishonesty

Mayor London Breed at the Chinatown Night Out event in San Francisco, Calif., on Wednesday, September 7, 2022. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

One of Mayor London Breed’s political appointees to the Police Commission is quickly learning what it means to cross her.

Less than a year ago, Breed hailed Max Carter-Oberstone as a “tireless advocate” for reform when she placed him on the Police Commission.

Now the mayor is publicly accusing him of “dishonesty”—and criticizing the seven-member body for focusing on reform over public safety.

“This commission has really turned a lot of people off,” Breed said at a Chinese press event last week, according to a recording obtained by The Standard. “Police reform [is] important, too, but that has really taken a hold, and been the only thing that this commission has really pushed.”

The tipping point between the mayor and her appointee came last Wednesday when Carter-Oberstone cast the swing vote in a decision that largely stripped Breed of her power over the future of police oversight in San Francisco.

Breed wanted to name another one of her appointees, Larry Yee, as Police Commission president—the most important role on a powerful body that sets police policy, disciplines officers and can even fire the chief.

Instead, Carter-Oberstone chose to elect himself vice president and Cindy Elias—a Board of Supervisors appointee—as president, siding with the minority bloc of board-appointed commissioners in a 4-3 vote.

Breed excoriated Carter-Oberstone in the wake of the vote, saying he was dishonest with her and Yee about who he would support for president—claims that Carter-Oberstone denies.

“I would have never thought I would have had to advocate and push to put together a constituency to come out and support Larry Yee,” Breed said. “He was lied to about his support. And last minute, what could he have done?”

Breed’s comments can be seen as the latest indication that momentum for police reform has all but dried up in San Francisco, as the pendulum of public opinion swung toward fears of being attacked on the streets.

No longer is the mayor calling to defund the police—she proudly supports hiring more police officers and expanding their surveillance powers.

The backlash against Carter-Oberstone can also be seen as a glimpse into the sausage-making at City Hall.

It raises questions as to how much influence the Mayor’s Office exerts over Breed’s appointees on the Police Commission and beyond, who critics have long suspected receive marching orders from the top.

Police Commissioner Max Carter-Oberstone poses for a photograph at his home in San Francisco on Friday, April 1, 2022. | Nick Otto | Source: Nick Otto for The Standard

Breed said she was counting on Yee to be a voice for the Chinese community, and strike a balance between “justice and fairness.” She held up the vote against him as the latest example of “how politics and self-interest continues to get in the way of the things that we know we need to do in San Francisco.”

Breed contrasted Carter-Oberstone with another one of her political appointees, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins, whom the mayor said she could trust to deal with public safety and violent crime.

In response, Carter-Oberstone said the mayor’s comments about his support for Yee caught him off guard, calling them “unequivocally untrue.”

“There was never a time that I made any representation that I would vote for Larry Yee,” Carter-Oberstone told The Standard. “I didn’t even learn that Commissioner Yee was the mayor’s preferred pick until the day of the vote.”

Carter-Oberstone said he voted for Elias because she was the most qualified commissioner for the role as the longest-serving member of the body. Who appointed him to the commission should be irrelevant, he said.

“I think it’s important to be independent,” Carter-Oberstone said. “It’s important that we each on this commission exercise our independent judgment to cast votes that we think are in the best interest of the public.”

Asked for clarity on the mayor’s comments, Breed’s spokesperson said Carter-Oberstone previously “indicated his support for Larry” to Tyra Fennell, a senior staffer who oversees the mayor’s commission appointments.

The spokesperson, Jeff Cretan, said Carter-Oberstone did not mention his plan to support Elias until shortly before the meeting.

“He changed his mind,” Cretan said.

Cretan declined to make Fennell available for an interview. Fennell did not return a message left on her voicemail.

Reached by phone, Yee declined to say whether Carter-Oberstone lied to him or committed to supporting him, as the mayor suggested.

“That’s something you have to ask Max whether he committed or not,” Yee said. “I have nothing to say yes or no about, whatever he says.”

“He’s a lawyer, he can’t lie, remember that,” Yee added.

Asked why he wanted to be president, Yee said for the same reason he wanted to be on the commission: to work with the community.

“The question is, ‘Why can’t I be?’ Is there any objection to that?”

From left: Police Commissioner Larry Yee, Mayor London Breed and District Attorney Brooke Jenkins on stage at the ‘Peaceful Garden’ Block Party in Chinatown on July 23, 2022 | Paul Kuroda for The Standard

This is not the first time the Mayor’s Office has had an issue with Carter-Oberstone, who has emerged as one of the more vocal commissioners willing to question Chief Bill Scott on hard issues.

Carter-Oberstone is the leading voice behind a controversial push to ban officers from making certain traffic stops. The goal is to reduce significant and persistent racial disparities in stop data between Black and white drivers.

Per Cretan, Breed has not taken a position on the proposed policy itself. But the issue is “more complex than just simple data,” he said.

“We have had to intervene more to make sure that he is listening to the community,” Cretan said, referring to the Human Rights Commission hosting meetings to solicit input from people in the Bayview and other neighborhoods. “He needs to engage with them meaningfully and that’s not happening.”

Carter-Oberstone pointed out that while most department policies are revised behind closed doors and presented to the public much later, his draft proposal was published long ago and discussed in open session.

“I welcome criticism and constructive feedback on how we can even be more transparent,” Carter-Oberstone said. “There hasn’t been another [policy] revision process that has solicited this much public input.”

Meanwhile, Elias disputed the notion that the Police Commission is focused on reform at the expense of public safety. She said the commission often discusses concerns about officers not taking action to address crime.

“We’re focused on all of it, they are not mutually exclusive,” Elias said.

She said she hopes to unite the commission going forward.

“You do this,” she said, “because you want to do the right thing and make San Francisco a better place.”

Han Li contributed additional reporting for this story.

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