Demand Civil Rights Investigation of the SFPD!

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra


Mario Woods was killed execution-style by the San Francisco Police Department with a firing squad on December 2, 2015. Horrific as this killing was, it was by no means an isolated incident. In 2015, San Francisco was ranked top 10 WORST per capita killings by police in large U.S. cities, far worse than Charlotte, Chicago, Baltimore and New York City. Victims of police violence in SF disproportionately have been people of color and the existence of institutionalized racism in the SFPD has been well documented for many years. Please join Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community—Justice for Mario Woods in demanding that CA Attorney General Xavier Becerra open a civil rights investigation of the SFPD.

To: California Attorney General Xavier Becerra
From: [Your Name]

Dear California Attorney General Becerra,

I write to you in support of the demands put forward by Wealth and Disparities in the Black Community—Justice for Mario Woods, a grassroots San Francisco group launched in response to the firing squad, execution-style killing of Mario Woods by the SFPD on December 2, 2015. Horrific as this killing was, it was by no means an isolated incident. In 2015, San Francisco joined Bakersfield in making the top 10 WORST list of the largest 100 cities nationally for per capita killings by police. This means that in that time period San Francisco ranked far worse than Charlotte, Tulsa, Chicago, Baltimore, New York City and St. Louis ( Victims of excess use of police force in San Francisco disproportionately have been people of color and the existence of institutionalized racism in the San Francisco Police Department has been well documented for many years. In light of this pattern and practice of misconduct within the SFPD, I am demanding that you open a civil rights investigation under California Civil Code 52.3.

Since the 2015 shooting death of Mario Woods, several official reports have exposed the need for systemic reform in the SFPD to deal with lack of police accountability and the department’s culture of racism. In June, 2016 the San Francisco Civil Grand Jury report documented the need for more timely and transparent investigations of fatal officer involved shootings. It found that the District Attorney “takes too long to complete its criminal investigations and issue its charging decision letter in OIS cases.” In July, 2016 a Blue Ribbon Panel of three retired judges issued a comprehensive set of findings followed by 78 recommendations for change. Their report cited “racial disparities in SFPD stops, searches and arrests” and found that the Police Officers Association “has historically taken positions resistant to reform and insisted that there is no widespread or inherent bias in the department.”

Perhaps the most impressive of these reports came from the US Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services in October, 2016. Like the others, the COPS report offered numerous findings and many recommendations for change in the practices of the SFPD. But while it promises to result in some policing reforms, its recommendations are only advisory in nature. We believe it will not rectify the racist culture of the SFPD because it cannot lead to legal accountability of the individual police officers responsible for so many senseless fatal shootings.

In April, 2016, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi wrote to California Attorney General Kamala Harris requesting that she launch an independent civil rights investigation of the SFPD. He pointed out that the COPS review, “while a step in the right direction, is voluntary and lacks teeth. Unlike the US Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the COPS program does not have the ability to enforce change.” The same can be said for the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel and Grand Jury reports. Only an independent civil rights investigation of the SFPD can bring justice for the surviving families and friends of victims of unjustified police shootings.

In December, 2016, Attorney General Kamala Harris announced State investigations of the Bakersfield Police Department and Kern County Sheriff’s Office. She argued these investigations were necessary because “excessive use of force and police misconduct erode and undermine the public’s trust in our law enforcement agencies.” Yet the State has taken no action on the excessive number of fatal police shootings in San Francisco and the deep community distrust caused by reckless policing.

Since 2011, the SFPD has been involved in the shooting deaths of 19 civilians without even one indictment from the San Francisco District Attorney. In all, upwards of 29 killings at the hands of law enforcement have been recorded since 2011 – none of which have resulted in a decision by District Attorney George Gascón to file charges against officers. 2015 was a very deadly year for police shootings, culminating in the December 2015 killing of Mario Woods. Now viral witness video of the murder shows a cowering Woods backing against a wall as officers open fire with more than 40 bullets, striking him more than 20 times – most of the shots hitting the back and head. Since the execution of Mario Woods, three more fatal shootings occurred. The circumstances for two of those 2016 cases make the deaths particularly egregious. Forty-five year old Luis Gongora Pat, a homeless Yucatecan Mayan, was shot in the back on April 7, 2016. He was shot within 30 seconds of the arrival of the SFPD, though police initially said they spent several minutes negotiating with Gongora, in English and Spanish (which the nearby surveillance camera audio later disproved). Jessica Williams Nelson, a twenty-nine year old Black woman from Sacramento, was shot by the SFPD on May 19, 2016. She was unarmed and sitting in a car when shot and killed.

In September, 2016, the City of San Francisco approved funding for a new independent investigatory unit within the District Attorney’s Office. The goal was to deal with the backlog of 14 unresolved cases of police officer involved fatalities, 11 of which were lethal shootings. One of those fatalities—the shooting of Amilcar Perez Lopez in the back on February 26, 2015—was decided in favor of the police in April, 2017. Discounting conflicting witness evidence, the District Attorney concluded that the shooting was justified because Perez Lopez was allegedly threatening another man with a knife. Civil rights attorney Ben Rosenfeld comments that DA Gascón’s report “resolves contradictory evidence in favor of the officers, omits details that are unhelpful to them, and enlists a so-called expert to explain, in feats of mental gymnastics, how officers who first claimed Perez Lopez was lunging at one of them managed to shoot him six times in the back of his body.”

I strongly disagree that a civil rights investigation of the SFPD would interfere with and potentially undermine the investigations that will be done by the DA’s new unit. As Public Defender Jeff Adachi has said, “having the Attorney General provide an independent investigation would support the DA’s investigation.” An independent investigation is needed because of the public perception that DA Gascón, having previously served as the Chief of Police, cannot be fully objective. The Police Practices Director for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, Peter Bibring, has also advocated for greater involvement by the State. In a June 1, 2016 SF Chronicle article Bibring is quoted as saying: “The attorney general’s office is free from the day-to-day interaction with local officers—they’re not interacting with police like (local) prosecutors are. And they’re in California and closer to the ground than the U.S. Department of Justice, that’s based in D.C.”

Before leaving for her U.S. Senate job Attorney General Harris assigned the head of her Civil Rights Division to monitor the progress of the COPS report. She said she would wait to see what recommendations came from the COPS division before authorizing an independent State investigation of the SFPD. Now that those recommendations have been received—and in light of U.S. Attorney General Sessions’ announcement that he is pulling back from investigating police civil rights violations—the need for State intervention is all the more critical. You can set a positive example of what states can do to bring justice for Black and Brown victims of racially biased policing that continues to lead to untimely deaths across this country.

For all the reasons cited in this letter, I demand that you open a civil rights investigation of the SFPD under California Civil Code 52.3.