Police answer to civilian commission in Calif. city

April 10, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

SAN FRANCISCO -- The clock in Room 551 of the Thomas J. Cahill Hall of Justice inched inexorably toward 5: 30 p.m. Wednesday. At the front of the room was a bench with five chairs, one for each of this city's five police commissioners.

In front of the chairs lay tags with the commissioners' names: Connie Perry, Pat Norman, Dennis Herrera, Sidney Chan and Wayne Friday. They are, respectively, a worker for the city's department of insurance, the head of a community health agency, a lawyer, a self-employed accountant and a retired district attorney. None of San Francisco's five police commissioners is a police officer. They are appointed by the mayor to run this town's Police Department -- handing out discipline, hiring or firing the police chief, setting policy. The police commissioners make up the body known as San Francisco's police commission and, as the head of San Francisco's Republican Party noted, have "full authority over the Police Department."

The commission meets every

Wednesday in Room 551 at 5: 30 in the afternoon. The meetings are open to the public. The agenda is posted on a bulletin board outside Room 551. Wednesday's meeting was fairly routine: an opening with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a roll call, approving the consent calendar, setting a date for the disciplinary hearings of two officers and hearing the appeal of another.

The commissioners applauded when the department honored three civilians who helped police nab two bank robbers. They gave their blessings to a request from the police chief for the department to participate in a boating and waterways safety program. After a few comments from the public -- on this Wednesday, it was two guys from San Francisco's gay community who wanted the commissioners to tell them if opening bath houses came under the jurisdiction of the Police Department or the department of health -- the meeting adjourned shortly before 6: 30 p.m.

All of this seemed pretty pedestrian. Heck, it smacked of being downright mainstream. Was this San Francisco? Is this the same city where Mayor Willie Brown got creamed with a pie by guys in nun's habits who dub themselves the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence? Is this the same town where the San Francisco Beacon recently printed a proud, bold headline: "Gay Nuns `Cream' Homophobic Reverend With Pies"? Is this the San Francisco that has so many liberals, leftists and out-and-out anarchists that it may be the American equivalent of France under Charles de Gaulle, who lamented that it was impossible to run a country where there are more than 600 kinds of cheese?

You betcha. The commission not only runs the Police Department, it runs it well. With the commission's combined oversight of the Police Department and the Office of Citizen Complaints, San Francisco has what many consider the best example of civilian review in the country.

The cruelly sarcastic might say the board members look like refugees from Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition. Perry is a black woman. Norman is a black woman who is openly lesbian. Herrera is Hispanic, Chan is an Asian, and Friday is apparently the token white guy of the group.

Wednesday, Mary Dunlap sat at a table to the right of the commissioners. For three years, Dunlap has been the head of San Francisco's Office of Citizen Complaints -- OCC to the average San Franciscan. Dunlap, also openly lesbian, is lawyerly, scholarly, affable and the best OCC director San Francisco has ever had.

San Franciscans voted to establish the OCC in 1982 to investigate allegations of police misconduct and prosecute before the commissioners those believed guilty. The office was set up in 1983 and spent years bogged down in backlogs and inefficiency.

"There was a real problem of agency credibility," Dunlap said of the OCC when she took over. "The OCC was not known for investigating thoroughly. There was a morale problem. It was a sad place when I came in."

Dunlap immediately tackled the problems by setting some standards at the OCC. To become one of the department's 15 investigators, a candidate must have a bachelor's degree, two years of experience as a professional investigator or one year of experience investigating "allegations of official or employee misconduct."

There's one other requirement: OCC investigators may not be former San Francisco Police Department officers.

"We have a wide variety of investigators here," Dunlap said. "Journalists, paralegals, on-the-street private investigators, law enforcement -- but not SFPD." That would lead to a problem of objectivity -- an officer investigating a former partner, perhaps. But potential investigators undergo a background check, partly to determine if they're chronic lawbreakers.

Have OCC's investigators cleared up the office's backlog? Of 1,057 cases OCC opened in 1998, they closed 1,043. How did the office do it?

"Officers are obliged to come here and talk to us," Dunlap stressed.

Pub Date: 4/10/99

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