Kevin Allen, Director of the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints
POV: How did civilian oversight develop in San Francisco? How does your office work?
Kevin Allen: In 1982 voters put the Office of Citizen Complaints on the ballot, so that’s when we were created. It was created by an amendment to the city charter, so any changes would also have to be made that way. In 1995 the charter was amended to state that our office must have one investigator per 150 officers. Before that, the office was somewhat understaffed, with five to seven investigators for the whole department.
We investigate every complaint about policing that comes in, when the officer is either on-duty or acting in a position of authority by identifying him- or herself as a police officer. We receive complaints in person, over the phone, or through our website. Complainants can be anonymous. After a complaint is filed, we have one year to investigate and make recommendations about imposing discipline. We can’t impose discipline, and we don’t recommend specific discipline. We make our recommendations to the chief, or, if we feel the complaint is very serious, directly to the police commission. The whole process is confidential, until a discipline recommendation is made. The chief can only discipline officers by suspending them for up to ten days. If it’s more serious, we’ll ask that it go to the commission. Cases of excessive force, lying by a police officer, and cases that have drawn a lot of public attention will go to the commission a lot of the time.
POV: Civilian oversight is popular in a number of cities, but its effects have varied. What are the keys to making civilian oversight effective in San Francisco?
Allen: We have complete autonomy. We’re our own department of the mayor. And though the commission oversees what we do, we receive a separate budget from the mayor’s office. We have so many investigators [because of the 1995 amendment] it makes it a bit easier to get through the investigations. One thing we gained through Proposition H [a ballot initiative passed in 2003] — before, if we wanted the police chief to send a complaint on to the commission, and the chief disagreed, the commission could only urge the chief to send it on them. Now, if the chief disagrees, and we feel that our findings are correct, we can go directly to the commission. It’s given the commission more discretion to look it over and say, This should go to the public and be heard in front of us.” If we turn the case over to the chief, and the chief holds the case, we can turn around and do that verified complaint procedure, sending it directly to the commission.
POV: Are civilian oversight boards and police departments inherently opposing interests? Can there be effective partnerships between them?
Allen: By its very nature, the process is somewhat adversarial. In my opinion, I think that the department could use us as management tools. When we get complaints that have merit, I would think they would want to know that so that they can improve public safety and efficiency. There is still some tension between the police department and the Office of Citizen Complaints, but what we’re really trying to get them to understand is that we do what we have to do by law. The public’s pretty hard on the police department. One big knock on the department is that they’re violating civil rights, with unnecessary searches, unnecessary force, and harassment. The public supports the police, but they don’t necessarily support what the police are doing right now. One knock on the OCC is that what we do is confidential. We get maybe 1000 cases a year, and we sustain about 10 percent of those. That doesn’t necessarily mean something didn’t happen, but that we couldn’t prove it. In the last year, the complaint was that the commission doesn’t do anything, that it wasn’t coming down hard enough on officers, allowing them to run wild.
POV: How do your investigations begin? Is there any sort of automatic review process in place, for example in police shooting incidents?
Allen: Most of our jurisdiction comes from complaints. If there is a shooting by a police officer, we’re one of several agencies that are called. We can have an investigator on the scene, while the crime scene investigators are on the scene. The homicide division does a review, and the management control division of the police department does an investigation. We can review their findings. Also, we look for policy failures that may be partly responsible, and we can make recommendations about policy, usually six to eight months later. Some of our recommendations have focused on contact between the police and non-English-speaking people. Our recommendations included getting more people who speak different languages, whether police officers or not, and including them from the beginning, rather than trying to translate later or using broken English. When we make recommendations like that, we make them public.
POV: What new developments would you like to see in community oversight?
Allen: For investigative purposes, we’d like to see a trial run of cameras in police cars. When people are doing investigations, film can be more telling. We are actually expanding our own services as well. We have a mediation program now, but it’s pretty perfunctory. We’d like to get officers sitting down with citizens more, talking about incidents.
Kevin Allen was a public defender in San Francisco for four years. He has been the director of the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints since 2003.