District Attorney Chesa Boudin has been on a collision course with the San Francisco Police Department and its supporters ever since voters signed off on his progressive agenda in 2019. But the long-simmering dispute between the city’s top prosecutor and police came to a head in stunning fashion this week, as they traded accusations of withholding evidence and putting public safety at risk.
Under pressure from the rank and file, Police Chief Bill Scott on Wednesday abruptly pulled out of an agreement that put the District Attorney’s Office in charge of investigating all police shootings, in-custody deaths and other critical incidents in the city. He accused the District Attorney’s Office of violating the terms of the agreement by withholding evidence in a case against an officer accused of using excessive force.
The dissolution of the agreement over police shootings appears to be a flashpoint in what was always expected to be a war between two of San Francisco’s top law enforcement agencies. In 2019, Boudin was elected as part of a national wave of progressive prosecutors elected on platforms that sought to reduce mass incarceration and reform the criminal justice system. He promised to charge dirty cops and make petty crimes less of a priority, which law enforcement feared would lead to increased lawlessness and put a target on officers' backs.
But in the year and a half since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, followed by months of protests and calls to defund the police, the pendulum on public safety appears to be swinging back in San Francisco after a series of flash-mob burglaries garnered national attention. The anti-Boudin forces coalesced last year and he’s now facing a recall election in June for following through on the very things he promised to do during his campaign.
Chief Scott's letter removed any doubt where he stands on the matter. But what few people outside of the police department knew at the time is that the chief was on trial himself.
The San Francisco Police Officers Association was scheduled to consider a no-confidence vote on the chief’s performance just one day after he sent his letter. Some union leaders called for the vote last weekend, after two departing officers sent department-wide emails saying they felt unsupported by the chief—in part, for not speaking out about the trial against Officer Terrance Stangel.
The union ended up cancelling the vote Thursday morning after Scott severed the department’s agreement with the DA’s Office.
“You can’t ignore the timing of this,” said retired ACLU attorney John Crew, a longtime police watchdog in San Francisco. “It’s pretty obvious what brought him to this point. He is under enormous pressure internally from the POA.”
SFPOA President Tony Montoya confirmed that the union planned to “discuss leadership within the police department” at a meeting Thursday night, but said the meeting was cancelled because “people had time to reflect.”
He added that the chief’s decision was “the right thing” to do but had nothing to do with politics and was not connected to the union’s vote.
“The POA has no influence over Bill Scott, that’s very apparent, because over the years we have been at odds,” said Montoya.
The agreement between the DA’s Office and police is important because it ensures there are independent investigations into police shootings. It was first crafted as a reform measure in response to a series of deadly police shootings by San Francisco police in 2015 and 2016. Scott said he has reached out to the California Department of Justice to explore alternative options for independent investigations.
Crew said the chief’s decision to withdraw from the agreement without first consulting the Police Commission could be the most overt and consequential attacks on civilian oversight the city has seen in decades. The department announced the chief’s decision in a press release, which Crew viewed as a coordinated political attack considering Boudin is facing a recall election.
“I do not recall a police chief and a police department becoming so overtly political and that’s why I think this is a threat to the rule of law,” Crew said. “If they are allowed to say that we are going to use the power of the police department for political purposes, we are in big trouble.”
As recently as last summer, Scott and Boudin had a cordial if not tenuous relationship, as the pair filmed a public service announcement against anti-Asian hate crimes.
“Together, we will make San Francisco safe,” the duo said in unison.
We're committed to safety with respect to all. Together, with the @SFDAOffice we will work to keep all communities safe. @SFPDChief @chesaboudin pic.twitter.com/nrVv1Cd1qm— San Francisco Police (@SFPD) June 3, 2021
That tune began to change by the winter, after a night of smash-and-grab burglaries in Union Square before Thanksgiving drew national attention. The chief and Mayor London Breed held a joint press conference at City Hall the next month to declare a public safety emergency in the Tenderloin, and the latter said she was done with the “bullshit.”
Last week, Mayor Breed and Chief Scott noticeably held two press conferences on crime in the city without Boudin. One of those pressers, which announced a 560% increase in anti-Asian hate crimes, was intentionally delayed so media members could also attend another news conference where a Vietnamese American man announced he was filing a lawsuit against Boudin for not protecting his civil rights as the victim of an alleged hate crime.
Police Commissioner John Hamasaki, the most vocal critic of Scott on the civilian body, said the chief’s decision to break the agreement with the DA’s Office on certain investigations is an extension of the tough-on-crime narrative Breed and police touted in December.
“This is the result of a long campaign by the police union against the chief to try and bend him to their will,” Hamasaki said. “Over the last six months, we’ve seen indications that this was coming.
“But I honestly did not expect it to come like this.”
At a Police Commission meeting Wednesday, Hamasaki accused Scott of trying to tamper with the jury in the Stangel case by announcing the decision so publicly instead of discussing his issues in private with Boudin.
Chief Scott declined an interview request Friday, but during Wednesday’s meeting he defended his actions, saying his letter was prompted by the District Attorney’s Office violating the terms of the agreement.
At issue for Scott is the testimony of Magen Hayashi, an investigator for the District Attorney’s Office who was part of the team investigating whether Officer Stangel committed a crime by repeatedly striking a man with a baton while responding to a 911 call reporting domestic violence in 2019.
Last week, a defense attorney for Stangel called Hayashi to the stand as part of a motion to dismiss the case due to prosecutorial misconduct. Hayashi said she felt pressured to leave out information about the reported domestic violence from an affidavit in support of an arrest warrant for Stangel.
Hayashi also said she did not tell a police investigator—who was conducting a parallel investigation into the reported domestic violence—about an interview she did with a witness to the incident. She said there was an “understanding” her unit did not share information with police. That interview occurred in December 2019—which Boudin’s supporters note was before he became DA.
A judge ruled that Hayashi's testimony would not have benefited Stangel in his case.
Boudin fired back at the chief in a press conference of his own Thursday. While there is a gag order on the Stangel case that prevents the prosecutor from addressing certain allegations from Scott, Boudin said there was no evidence of any alleged prosecutorial misconduct. He also questioned why the chief did not discuss any of the alleged violations of the agreement with him instead of “politicizing” the issue.
Regardless, Scott said, the testimony shows the DA’s Office violated their agreement, which requires both agencies to share information with each other that is relevant to investigations.
Boudin said it was “no coincidence” the chief’s letter arrived ahead of the Stangel case going to trial next week. He also noted that the chief's decision to pull out of the agreement will put public safety at risk, as police shootings have gone down since it was signed.
“I think the decision and the fact that the recall is on the ballot in June make something very clear, and that's what voters are voting on in June,” Boudin said. “It's not about my tenure in office. It’s about police accountability.”
Michael Barba can be reached at [email protected]