San Francisco police, though annoyed at times, support civilian review process

April 11, 1999|By GREGORY KANE

SAN FRANCISCO -- Police officers in this city are, willingly or unwillingly, part and parcel of the process of civilian review. A five-member board of civilians known as the police commission runs the department, handing out discipline and picking the chief.

An Office of Citizen Complaints investigates allegations of police misconduct and prosecutes officers before a hearing of the commissioners if the allegation is sustained. Officers must make statements to the OCC as part of the investigation, but their statements can't be used against them later in criminal or civil proceedings.

Such a state of affairs has to drive the beat cop absolutely bananas, right?

Chris Cunnie says it ain't necessarily so. He should know. He's president of the Police Officers Association, the union that represents San Francisco's police officers.

"Our members support civilian oversight," Cunnie said. "Ninety-four percent of the charges [against police officers] are never sustained." (OCC statistics for 1998 show that 10 percent, not 6 percent, of charges were sustained.)

"We feel our members are doing a good job and their investigators are doing a good job," Cunnie said.

But don't get the impression that he doesn't have some problems with the OCC and the police commission. He does.

"They take anything and everything," Cunnie said of the complaints the OCC investigates. Anonymous complaints, in particular, raise Cunnie's dudgeon. Then there's the civilian who might get stopped for questioning. Four or five other officers might arrive as backup. The civilian might have a problem with only the original officer, but "the complainant may have all five or six cops go to OCC," Cunnie lamented.

The OCC's "early warning system" gets no high marks from Cunnie, either. Under the early warning system, beginning officers are counseled if they draw three complaints in a six-month period or four complaints within a year.

"You've got a good, young, working cop and now, because of three bogus complaints, he's got this cloud over him," Cunnie said.

Mary Dunlap, director of the OCC, said the early warning system is not as sinister as Cunnie makes it sound.

"The complaints don't necessarily indicate a problem," Dunlap explained. "They may indicate a pattern of enforcement that's permissible."

Cunnie wants the early warning system changed or dropped. He also has a gripe against the commissioners, who, Cunnie says, lost control of the hearings in the Aaron Williams case.

Williams was a black burglary suspect arrested in June 1995. High on crack, Williams fought with officers who tried to subdue him. Williams was pepper-sprayed, handcuffed and placed unconscious in a paddy wagon, where he died. One officer, Marc Andaya, was charged with brutality for allegedly kicking Williams twice in the face after he was handcuffed and subdued. Four others were charged with not providing Williams with proper medical treatment as he lay unconscious. Their hearings before the police commission were heated, with some nasty rhetoric from the city's black community. Commissioner Pat Norman said commissioners faced such verbal abuse that they left and rescheduled the hearings.

"The commission let it get out of hand politically," Cunnie claimed. "They should have had more control of the hearings." Two of the four officers were disciplined for not giving Williams medical treatment. With one commissioner absent, Norman and another voted to find Andaya guilty of brutality, and two found him innocent. He was acquitted of brutality but later fired for falsifying his application. Cunnie feels community pressure influenced the guilty verdicts against the two officers who were found negligent.

It's not just the major cases that create problems. The little things can also get under a beat cop's skin. Cunnie told of one officer who stopped a guy on a traffic offense. The driver filed a complaint with the OCC. The complainant's grievance was not sustained by the OCC, but the officer got nailed for writing the wrong state's initials -- VT for Vermont instead of VA for Virginia -- on the ticket.

"They bring you down on something serious, and they don't get you for that, so they just nit-pick you," Cunnie said.

The police union supported a 1995 city charter ballot proposal that required the OCC to be funded so that there was one investigator for every 150 officers on the force.

"The citizens support civilian review," Cunnie emphasized, "so we support it. But it's frustrating at the street level."

Pub Date: 4/11/99

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