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John Crew, ‘indispensable’ voice for police reform in San Francisco, dies at age 65

John Crew, pictured at Oral History Project in 2009, championed numerous policies to reform the San Francisco Police Department, from surveillance activities to restricting the use of force by officers. He died this week at the age of 65. | Photo by Michael Woolsey, courtesy of the ACLU

John Crew, one of the most fierce and dogged voices for police reform and accountability in San Francisco, has died. He was 65.

The retired head of police oversight for the ACLU of Northern California had an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s police department.

Over the last four decades, Crew helped shape the debate around police practices, craft laws and change policies. He was remembered Friday as an “indispensable” source of information for politicians, journalists and attorneys, and he was a mentor for a new generation of criminal justice reformers.

“He always was so well-informed and so dedicated and so tireless,” said Julie Traun, a director at the Bar Association of San Francisco. “He just never stopped, and he also never stopped appreciating good cops.”

“But man, oh man, he was going to hold them accountable,” she said.

Crew’s daughter verified his death Friday. The night before, he gave an impassioned speech at a house party fundraiser on Fell Street for district attorney candidate John Hamasaki.

'He Never Went Away'

Crew was an advocate for limiting police surveillance activities and restricting use of force by officers. He was also a frequent critic of the police union—and the government agencies that often deferred to its leaders.

Crew was born in Los Angeles in 1957.

He began his career with the ACLU when he interned as a law student from UC Hastings in the early 1980s, when he represented anti-racist demonstrators protesting against the Ku Klux Klan in Sacramento, according to Alan Schlosser, the retired head of ACLU NorCal.

“John finished his internship,” Schlosser said. “Unlike most interns, he never went away.”

Schlosser hired Crew around 1984, and he worked in police practices, becoming known as more of an organizer than a litigator.

Samara Marion, a retired attorney who crafted policy as a member of the SF Department of Police Accountability (DPA), said she first met Crew back in the 1980s. At the time, she was a young public defender in Santa Cruz County.

“He was a champion of police reform and police oversight at times when it was not even seen as a professional field,” Marion said. “There were very few people involved, and people recognized nationally what an innovative, persistent leader he was.”

In 1989, Crew helped settle a battle between police and protesters over an AIDS vigil at United Nations Plaza by working with then-Mayor Art Agnos. Crew also helped shape new rules for officers using batons after police injured Dolores Huerta, a founder of the United Farm Workers union.

“He was influential in getting me to think about a different policy that I did put into place right after that,” Agnos said.

Crew’s work for the ACLU into the 1990s included making sure police dealt with protesters fairly. Schlosser credited Crew with “almost single-handedly” getting a landmark policy passed in the early 1990s that restricted San Francisco police surveillance of First Amendment activities.

“It’s not just that he wrote these policies, he kind of mastered the politics of getting them through, which wasn’t always easy,” Schlosser said.

The 1994 police general order came out of a spying scandal that involved officer Tom Gerard, who gathered information on political groups and handed it over to the Anti-Defamation League. 

At that same time, Crew remained a critic of potential government overstepping. In 1997, he argued that San Francisco police joining a task force with the FBI would “destroy any meaningful scrutiny of police intelligence-gathering activities.”

“That’s extremely dangerous,” Crew said, according to an Examiner report.

Police would later pull out of the Joint Terrorism Task Force in 2017 under President Donald Trump, when critics made the same argument Crew made years earlier.

'A Formidable Advocate'

In 2001, the National Association for the Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement gave Crew the first award the organization ever handed out. 

Even after his retirement, he continued to be a common face at the SF Police Commission.

Later in the aughts, he helped push forward the creation of an imperfect early warning system for troubled police officers, said Petra DeJesus, who served on the Police Commission from 2006 to 2021. 

“Many of us trusted him on the Police Commission,” said DeJesus, who conferred with Crew often on police oversight matters.

Hamasaki, a former police commissioner and DA candidate, remembered the long emails Crew frequently sent city officials and journalists alike.

“John Crew could write an email like nobody else,” Hamasaki said. “I just told him yesterday, ‘You’re the only person whose emails I print out and highlight.’”

In 2018, Crew played a major role in defeating a ballot measure from the police union that would have given officers the option to use Tasers.

Traun, the attorney with the Bar Association, recalled dropping off campaign materials at Crew’s house during the Taser battle.

“His whole kitchen table was like a war room,” Traun said. “It was like his mind. There were papers everywhere.”

She added, “The guy just didn’t stop.”

In 2016, Crew then helped pass a law that renamed and empowered the Department of Police Accountability. Most recently, he was helping the Bar Association pressure the city to make sure that Police Officers Association union negotiations included police reforms, said Deputy Federal Public Defender David Rizk. 

Even his opponents in that fight had respect for him. 

"He was a staunch advocate and a good sparring partner,”said Tracy McCray, president of the San Francisco Police Officers Association. “He fought for what he believed in; it doesn't matter what side you were on.” 

McCray’s predecessor as head of the police union, Tony Montoya, agreed.

“We each had a job to do, and he was a formidable advocate,” Montoya said.

Despite decades of work in the bleak world of policing, Crew kept his sense of humor intact.

“Sometimes the work in this field can get dark; it can be depressing,” said John Alden, a former police oversight attorney in San Francisco. “I don't really recall him ever succumbing to it or being overwhelmed or depressed.”

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at