California’s top lawyer announced Monday he will monitor reforms at the San Francisco Police Department, replacing recently ended federal oversight and crafting a new path for state officials to become law enforcement watchdogs after the Trump administration last year drastically cut federal investigations of troubled agencies.
“Simply because the federal government decided to abandon ship does not mean we were going to let the ball drop,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said at a press event Monday in San Francisco. “At the end of the day ... we picked up the ball and we are going to run with it, and we are going to do this for the people of California and San Francisco.”
The move comes after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last spring changed Department of Justice policy to largely end the kind of civil rights investigations of law enforcement that have been a driving force behind police reforms across the country, whether through consent decrees or voluntary action.
San Francisco has been pursuing a list of voluntary reforms. It requested a federal review of its department in 2015 following the high-profile shooting of a black man, Mario Woods, by police and the disclosure of racist and homophobic texts between some officers.
Other departments have not submitted to oversight voluntarily, but have been sued by the Justice Department and entered into consent decrees that legally mandate changes.
In March, Sessions directed Justice Department officials to review all such police reform activities, including collaborative reform, training and existing and pending consent decrees. The two-page memo cited a need for DOJ to “promote officer safety, officer morale, and public respect for their work,” as well as the need to not allow the actions of individual bad actors to reflect on an entire department.
Sessions has offered frequent criticism of consent decrees, including comments he made during his Senate confirmation hearing.
“I think there is concern that good police officers and good departments can be sued by the Department of Justice when you just have individuals within a department that have done wrong,” Sessions said in January 2017. “These lawsuits undermine the respect for police officers and create an impression that the entire department is not doing their work consistent with fidelity to law and fairness, and we need to be careful before we do that.”
The federal pullout on police reforms came as law enforcement agencies across the country grapple with public dissatisfaction and anger spurred by high-profile shootings of black men by police and what activists say is systemic bias in policing minorities.
Georgetown law professor and Obama-era Department of Justice attorney Christy Lopez, who led the team that investigated police agencies, said California’s announcement was “really a step into the breach, into the gap, that was left by the Department of Justice departure from these cases.” She called it a “promising and important development” for agencies that want to continue with reforms but lack the internal capacity to do so.
A Justice Department spokesman declined comment Monday when asked if it was appropriate for state officials to take on oversight responsibilities typically handled by the department.
While it’s unusual for state attorneys general to take such a step, it is not unprecedented. In 1999, California investigated and later sued the Riverside Police Department, settling with a consent decree to reform the agency. New York has taken similar action in the past, said Samuel Walker, professor of criminal justice of University of Nebraska Omaha and a policing expert.
Currently in Illinois, the attorney general has sued to force the Chicago Police Department into a state-level consent decree based on an investigation of the agency by the Obama Department of Justice.
“It’s going to set a standard, be kind of a beacon,” Walker said of state actions.
Walker said despite the Trump administration’s stance, many departments across the country have begun reforms and likely will not abandon them. Illinois and California could provide “a way we can improve policing without thinking about Washington,” he said.
“It’s true that the White House and the U.S. Attorney General, they can set the tone,” Walker said. “But they dominate the tone only if nobody else speaks. So when the state attorney general, especially in California, (speaks), you have another voice.”
San Francisco is in the middle of implementing 272 recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Justice under the Obama administration though its Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) division. The reforms include measures to address issues around use-of-force, racial bias, accountability, diversity and data tracking.
In September, Sessions announced he would also be scaling back the collaborative reform initiative – the program that resulted in the COPS division recommendations to San Francisco – and therefore the COPS division would no longer suggest reforms or issue audit reports on law enforcement entities.
The Justice Department COPS program was conceived as a non-binding way to promote cooperation between police and communities in a time of increased tension. But Sessions characterized it as comprised of “expensive wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support.” He directed those funds be used to further fund efforts to reduce violent crime instead.
San Francisco Police Chief William Scott said the department has implemented about half of the federal recommendations and was expecting a DOJ report examining its progress when Sessions ended his aid. He said then-San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who died last year, immediately reached out to the California Department of Justice to ask it step into the oversight role when the federal government dropped out.
Scott said Monday’s agreement with Becerra was necessary to finishing what the department has begun.
“This agreement gives our work validation,” Scott said. “It gives us credibility. It gives us transparency.”