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Criminal Justice

Police Commission in Flux: Cohen, Hamasaki Depart at Key Moment in Reform Debate

Written by David SjostedtPublished Mar. 09, 2022 • 5:13pm
Malia Cohen, chair of California State Board of Education, addresses women participating in a post-partum training session with SisterWeb, a new doula partnership that trains Spanish-speaking, black and Pacific Islander women to be doulas and matches them with women in those communities, at Bayview Hunters Point Clinic in San Francisco, Calif., on Saturday, March 30, 2019. (Photo by Yalonda M. James/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)


The commission in charge of police oversight in San Francisco will be undergoing a makeover in the coming weeks—if not months—as two key figures have decided to leave at an important juncture in the city’s debate on how best to reform the department.

On Wednesday evening, the police commission will hold its first meeting since Malia Cohen stepped down as president to run for state controller. Commissioner John Hamasaki announced on Monday that he won’t run for a second term next month. 

Turnover on the commission comes at a critical time as the police department has received sharp criticism for its handling of crime victim DNA, and Chief Bill Scott has been publicly feuding with District Attorney Chesa Boudin over investigations into police shootings and other critical incidents.

In February, Scott pulled out of an agreement that allowed the DA’s Office to take the lead on investigations into certain use-of-force cases. Scott pointed to testimony from one of Boudin’s former investigators, who said she felt pressured to withhold evidence while investigating an officer, Terrance Stangel, for alleged excessive force. Boudin, who is facing a recall in June, denied the allegations.

Boudin later revealed that police used a rape victim’s DNA to charge the person as a suspect in a separate case. 

Hamasaki has been Chief Scott’s most vocal critic on the Police Commission for years. Last month, he blasted Scott’s decision to end the agreement with Boudin’s office on the eve of Stangel’s trial. Chief Scott and Boudin have since agreed to continue negotiations on how investigations will be handled.

But the withdrawal of the MOU, or memorandum of understanding—instituted as a mechanism of police accountability after a series of fatal police shootings in 2015 and 2016—is what led Hamasaki to give up his seat on the police commission, he told The Standard. 

“The battle for the culture of the department was lost with the chief’s decision on the MOU,” Hamasaki said. “I don’t know how the chief comes back from that.” 

Supervisor Aaron Peskin, whose role as chair of the Rules Committee positions him to have a guiding hand in appointing Hamasaki’s replacement, said he expects the two seats to be filled much quicker than the last vacancy. The last process dragged on for eight months as supervisors sought a candidate who would represent the Latino community in place of Petra DeJesus, who had served on the commission for 15 years. 

“I feel for Police Chief Bill Scott. I think he’s smart and reform-minded, but he’s between a rock and a hard place,” Peskin said. “I would like somebody who is a mature, expert, reform-minded commissioner who can work with the police, the chief and their colleagues.”

Three of the seven police commissioners are appointed by the Board of Supervisors, while the mayor appoints the remaining four. Mayor London Breed appointed Cohen to the commission in August 2020, while the board appointed Hamasaki in 2018.  

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Victor Young, clerk of the Rules Committee, said he hadn’t received any new applications for Hamasaki’s seat as of Wednesday. The mayor’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about who Breed might choose to succeed Cohen. 

David Rizk, who ran last year against current commissioner Jesús Gabriel Yañez, told The Standard that he had been contacted by city officials but wouldn’t be applying for Hamasaki’s seat because there are potential legal conflicts with his current job at the Federal Public Defender’s Office. 

“I hope they can find a replacement for [Hamasaki],” Rizk said. “It’s a very difficult job. … It’s unfortunate that it’s so political at this moment.” 

Hamasaki said the current political climate could dissuade potential candidates from running for his seat. 

“I don’t know how many people want to necessarily take on the cops,” Hamasaki said. “I have no problem going toe to toe with them, but that’s just me. … A commission full of me would be awesome, but everybody has to find their own way.”


David Sjostedt can be reached at [email protected]

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