San Francisco is coming off one of the wildest months in recent memory when it comes to the city’s police department.
First, Police Chief Bill Scott abruptly pulled out of a police reform agreement that put District Attorney Chesa Boudin in charge of investigating police shootings. Then Boudin dropped a bomb on the department, saying police unlawfully used DNA from a rape victim to arrest her in another crime. Of course, this is all happening against the backdrop of a June recall election targeting Boudin. Between all the finger pointing and marathon Police Commission meetings, it’s been hard to keep up.
Michael Barba and Josh Koehn, senior reporters for The Standard, break down the issues and politics behind the conflict and look at what’s next in the world of policing.
Barba: Josh, it’s no secret that San Francisco’s top two law enforcement officials have been at odds for a while, but why do you think we finally saw them turn up the heat on each other so publicly last month?
Josh: There’s no doubt that the June recall of Boudin has helped pull back the curtain on this war between the police department and the district attorney. We’ve both covered law enforcement in this city for a long time, and the gloves have come off in a way that we haven’t seen recently. Of course, the trial of Officer Terrance Stangel had a lot to do with that. The DA’s decision to deprioritize low-level crimes and advance diversion programs for drug offenders is another. And then there’s just general unrest we’re all feeling from the pandemic. But one of the more fascinating aspects of this whole situation is that Boudin is doing exactly what he promised to do when he ran for the office. And vice versa, his critics are calling him out for doing exactly what he said he was going to do. The only difference is the perception on whether these are the right decisions for the city.
You’ve got a lot of police sources, and I’m curious what you think about the fact that Chief Scott was facing a no-confidence vote from the police union the day before he decided to pull out of an agreement on how police shootings should be investigated.
Barba: I’m not so sure his decision to withdraw from the agreement had as much to do with any threatened action from the police union as it did just general unrest within the rank-and-file and his need to appease officers. There are some cops who feel unsupported by the command staff and one officer even went as far as to go on Fox News calling on him to stand up to the DA. I’ve been told officers don’t want to confront suspects in some cases because they’re afraid they’ll be the next one charged by the district attorney if the incident results in a shooting. I think that all boiled over for the chief when a DA investigator took the stand in the Stangel case and said she felt pressured to withhold evidence while investigating the officer.
Josh: I’m glad you brought up the testimony of Magen Hayashi. Her accusation that she was pressured to withhold evidence was obviously super-concerning to a lot of people and kind of the final straw in Chief Scott going public with the fued. But even though a judge found her testimony and evidence wasn’t relevant to the case against Stangel, a jury still found him not guilty on three of the four charges. Do you think the verdict in that case will have any impact on the other cases in which Boudin has charged officers? And maybe a more important question is can the relationship between SFPD and The DA’s office be repaired to the point that they can compromise on how to investigate police shootings and other critical incidents in the future?
Barba: I think the obvious answer is that all of these cases are unique and going to be tried based on their own merits. While Dacari Spiers was severely injured, the Stangel case was a lot less clear cut than some of the others. For instance, people expected Boudin to charge the rookie officer who shot a carjacking suspect, Kieta O’Neil, through the windshield of a moving patrol car. Even Chief Scott fired the officer in that case, so Boudin might have more success with a jury there. But a more critical answer to your question, which I’m sure Boudin recall supporters would argue, is that this verdict says something about the quality of the prosecution.
Josh: That’s assuming Boudin’s still around to even try those cases come June.
Barba: The bottom line is that if Boudin is recalled, it’s going to be a lot harder for the next district attorney to justify dismissing cases against officers since the charges are already filed. Choosing to not file a case in the first place is one thing. Deciding to dismiss a case is something else entirely when a previous prosecutor has already found there was enough evidence to file charges. As for the relationship between Boudin and the chief, they’re currently working things out behind closed doors to come up with a new police shooting agreement. Chief Scott told me Thursday that he hopes to reach a new deal with Boudin by late May that would keep the DA on board as SFPD’s independent investigator.
Josh: Ok, let’s change gears a second. One thing we haven’t even gotten into is how big money is fueling this whole recall process, which has literally been in the works since Boudin was elected. A pro-recall website was apparently created before he was even sworn into office, and more than a million dollars was spent to gather signatures and get the recall on the June 7 ballot after a previous effort failed. While the effort to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom failed because it was wisely framed up as a Republican power grab, another wealthy conservative donor, William Obendorf, has been pouring money into the effort to oust Boudin.
But I’m not sure voters will see this recall in the same lens. San Francisco has real issues when it comes to crime, as well as the perception of crime—fair or not. There also seems to be an appetite for recalls in this city after three school board members were given the boot. What did you think of the polling that came out last week suggesting roughly 68 percent of San Franciscans currently would sign off on recalling Boudin?
Barba: It certainly looks like Boudin is in trouble. My own unscientific polling shows that people in San Francisco seem to care a lot more about crime than criminal justice reform right now. Boudin ascended to power at a time when reform was at the forefront, and now it seems to have taken a back seat to public safety woes. I think whatever Boudin can do to make the SFPD look like an institution that needs oversight, like exposing that the department used rape victim DNA to arrest a sexual assault survivor in an unrelated crime, will help him make a case for keeping his job.