Power Play By "Progressive" Supervisors Sidelines Police Reform

Power Play By "Progressive" Supervisors Sidelines Police Reform

I do not believe we should politicize the lives of black and brown people.
— Supervisor Malia Cohen

Yesterday, the political rift in San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors erupted into vitriol, with accusations of betrayal and backhanded deals flying back and forth across the aisle. The soft divide between overtly liberal politicians, colloquially referred to as “Moderates” and “Progressives,” hardened into an iron curtain over police accountability. The majority faction known as “Progressives” forced a vote combining a popular ballot measure proposal for independent police oversight with a more controversial measure to create a Public Advocate office. (Editor’s note: because the labels are informal, we will be bracketing “moderate” and “progressive” appropriately throughout our coverage.)

“This has nothing to do with police violence,” activist Edwin Lindo wrote in an email. “These two have a private issue that is now being dealt with in the public eye.”

Edwin Lindo, one of the "Frisco 5" hunger strikers who protested former Police Chief Greg Suhr

Edwin Lindo, one of the "Frisco 5" hunger strikers who protested former Police Chief Greg Suhr

Supervisor Malia Cohen had previously been critical of “progressive” Supervisor David Campos’ proposal for a ballot measure creating a Public Advocate office. Cohen, nominally a “moderate,” had proposed a ballot measure to create a new department for police accountability that had received unanimous support in the wake of recent SFPD killings and Black Lives Matter protests. 

Cohen’s measure would have revamped the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) into a new structure, the Department of Police Accountability, which would be independent of the Police Department. She cited the December 2015 police shooting of Mario Woods, which was caught on video, as the impetus to “bring back confidence in law enforcement.” Elaine Brown, a former leader in the Black Panther Party, attended and spoke in favor of Cohen’s proposal, backed by the group Justice For Mario Woods. She illustrated recent reform efforts as evidence of “the resurrection of the spirit of the Black Panther Party.” 

Members of the “progressive” faction eager to curb the power of Mayor Ed Lee raised concerns on the day of voting that Cohen’s measure was flawed in reserving leadership appointment for the mayor. The objections came as a surprise to Supervisor Cohen, who had remained confident her measure had enough support to be approved for the ballot.

After a motion introduced by Supervisor John Avalos, onlookers were audibly shocked to see the “Progressive” faction, comprised of Supervisors Peskin, Kim, Yee, Avalos, Campos, and Mar, vote to combine Cohen’s measure with Campos’ Public Advocate proposal. Critics insisted that Cohen’s proposal would suffer by being hamstrung to the less powerful office proposed by Campos. Board President London Breed, respected on both sides for her stern professionalism, sharply rebuked the board; Cohen, visibly livid, called the majority of colleagues hypocrites. She immediately reiterated the sentiment on Twitter.

“This is absolutely critical; we don’t have time,” Cohen insisted, referring to the fact that the Public Advocate would not be elected until 2018 if Campos’ measure were to pass.

Supervisor David Campos, District 9

Supervisor David Campos, District 9

For several months prior, Campos’ Public Advocate proposal had been criticized as an effort to create a job for himself after he is termed out of the Board of Supervisors. Creating a new elected office to support whistleblowers and general complaints against city government, critics argued, was a waste of money and a transparent effort to keep Supervisor Campos in city hall. 

Though former Assemblymember Tom Ammiano argued that the office would in fact save the city millions, critics felt vindicated when Supervisor Eric Mar, part of the “progressive” majority faction, voted against the Public Advocate measure he had sponsored in the Rules Committee. His dissent has been attributed to an amendment that would prohibit elected officials from running for Public Advocate until they had been out of public office for at least four years, which would have disqualified Campos as a candidate. The amendment, introduced by Cohen, drew Campos into a rage last week, when he accused her of protecting the mayor.

Edwin Lindo remained skeptical that the Public Advocate could adequately protect communities of color from police violence. “Great, OCC is independent, but do you know that their findings are non-binding and SFPD does not have to implement the recommended personnel actions from OCC? Not sure the Public Advocate is any different.” 

Other critics also suggested off-the-record that Public Advocate oversight of the OCC would be more open to corruption than Cohen’s proposal, as it would circumvent the checks and balances of the mayor, Board of Supervisors, and their appointed police commission. At the meeting, Supervisor Mark Farrell, who co-sponsored Cohen’s measure, expressed consternation that the widely popular proposal would be combined with the Public Advocate measure “which we know will be controversial.”

Supervisor Scott Wiener addressed what he called a “very large elephant sitting in the room” in refusing to support Avalos’ motion: “there appears to be a majority clique on this board, and if you are part of that clique, your ballot measures move forward. If you’re not part of that clique, your ballot measures get killed, even if it previously had majority support, or your ballot measure gets merged into someone else’s ballot measure…This has been brewing for a while.” He observed that the situation would have been “unthinkable” just a few days prior, when Cohen’s measure had overwhelming support. 

Supervisor Mark Farrell, District 2, compares the "progressive" faction to his children extorting him for ice cream

Supervisor Mark Farrell, District 2, compares the "progressive" faction to his children extorting him for ice cream

Farrell chimed in on the dissent: “It’s the same thing as if my children come to me saying ‘we will not do our homework unless you give us ice cream.’ In their minds it might be related, but to any objective person watching that scenario unfold they are completely unrelated and it’s an attempt at extortion. It’s subverting the democratic process here at the Board of Supervisors, and I think it’s disgusting.”

Avalos retorted, “nobody in this room has a monopoly on self-righteous indignation.”

At one point, the clerk had to remind Supervisors that they were not allowed to insult each other. Supervisor Aaron Peskin, once accused of making threatening phone calls to port staff during his previous stint on the Board, urged his colleagues at length to return to civility.

Supervisor Cohen accused the “progressive” faction of playing party politics with a critical nonpartisan reform issue. In a press release published later the same day, she wrote: “Instead of allowing voters to make a decision about whether the police department should be audited, and increase the independence of the department which oversees officer involved shootings and allegations of police misconduct, [Supervisors Peskin, Kim, Yee, Avalos, Campos, and Mar] chose to politicize the issue…These two measures are completely separate and unrelated policies…Unlike my colleagues, I do not believe we should politicize the lives of black and brown people.”

Cohen also cited the support her measure had received from activist groups beforehand: “Today’s vote goes directly against the very demands and cries we have heard from our law enforcement reform advocates, including #BlackLivesMatter, the Justice for Mario Woods, Justice 4 Amilcar Perez-Lopez, Justice 4 Alex Nieto, the Center for Policing Equity, the Criminal Justice Task Force, the Blue Ribbon Panel and ACLU. Today was a sad day for San Francisco.”

Other ballot measures decided along quasi-party lines included a proposal by Norman Yee to give the Board more direct authority over the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s budget, rejecting “moderate” Scott Wiener’s ballot measure to fund maintenance for urban trees, and approving John Avalos’ measure limiting the mayor’s ability to appoint vacancies on the Board.

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