SAN FRANCISCO — While the San Francisco Police Department has a small group of violence-prone officers who are responsible for most of the use-of-force complaints filed against the department, it repeatedly fails to identify them and get them off the streets, according to a newspaper’s investigation.
The San Francisco Chronicle spent more than three years analyzing the department’s use of force. Through public records requests, it obtained the department’s handwritten use-of-force logs from 1996 to 2004 and created a computerized database that made it possible to determine which officers reported using force and how often. It also reviewed civil lawsuits, studied department regulations and conducted more than 100 interviews.
The data showed the department has a core group of violence-prone officers — fewer than 100 in a force of 2,200.
San Francisco is not unusual among major cities in having a small group of violent officers, but national experts say the department lags far behind many other major cities in developing an effective system for identifying problem officers. It also has repeatedly failed to get the officers off the streets.
Police Chief Heather Fong says the department is working aggressively to develop a more effective system for tracking and identifying potential problems and hopes to have it in place by the end of the year.
On Sunday, she said she had "considerable concerns” about the newspaper’s findings. Fong said a person in a photograph used by the Chronicle was misidentified as a San Francisco police officer.
"With this in mind, the police department is checking statements and figures put forward in that article for factual accuracy and has sought the assistance of the city attorney to determine what legal remedies can be sought.”
Mayor Gavin Newsom, who has ultimate responsibility for the department, did not make himself available for an interview despite repeated requests.
Members of his staff helped the department prepare a plan to "defuse possible negative public reaction” to the newspaper’s investigation, according to documents obtained by the Chronicle.
Among the investigation’s findings:
— Officers with questionable records are promoted to supervisory positions or assigned to train rookies, putting them in position to carry forward a culture that tolerates or rewards the use of force.
— In the years 2001 to 2004, San Francisco officers were the subject of more force allegations than officers in San Jose, Oakland, San Diego and Seattle combined.
— Taxpayers are exposed to high legal costs in defending lawsuits against officers involving force. From 1996 to 2005, the city paid more than $5 million in judgments and legal settlements. For that sum, it could have put 60 new officers on the streets this year.
— Public trust in the department is eroded, particularly among the city’s black residents, who department records show have been the disproportionate object of police action and force.
The Chronicle’s database, which included 8,601 logged uses of force from 1996 through 2004, allowed the newspaper to identify every officer who used force, determine how many times the officer resorted to force, identify his or her most-used weapons, and count how many suspects he or she injured and sent to the hospital.
The database showed that 100 San Francisco police officers accounted for 25 percent of the reported force in those years. Seventy-eight of them reported using force so frequently that they appeared on quarterly lists the department keeps of officers who may be using force too often.
Information from: San Francisco Chronicle, http://www.sfgate.com/chronicle<