SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — As calls to defund the police grow louder, elected officials are starting to weigh in.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Police Chief Bill Scott on Thursday announced a package of police reforms; meanwhile, Scott has said he supports efforts to redirect police funding to the city’s African American community in the upcoming budget.
I interviewed Paul Henderson, the city’s Executive Director for Police Accountability, who confirmed that some city leaders are standing behind the idea of defunding the police.
“We have heard from local leaders who have articulated that not only are they open to the idea of addressing the budget, which many of them have to because of these outside circumstances, but to addressing the actual demands that are being made from communities, especially communities of color.”
Henderson says he is not surprised San Francisco’s mayor and police chief are open to defunding the police department.
“I think that we have a chief that is committed to reforms but also wants to know how to be more efficient with the budget. Law enforcement budgets are the largest expense for most big cities. And I think, independent of rallies, protests and challenges about justice disparities … we are having real conversations in this country right now about how those dollars are being spent,” he said.
“The ultimate goal is for us to have policing and public safety defined in a way that is race-neutral.”
While the discussion at the local level is being amplified, so is the one in Washington, D.C. Henderson says he is worried about the lack of leadership at the federal level along with some of the police reforms being presented by the GOP.
“What I would be questioning and looking for is whether or not the Republican bill that gets proposed is going to go deep enough to address race disparities.”
Under the Obama administration in 2015, former Attorney General Eric Holder helped create a task force to reform the nation’s policing system. Among some of the recommendations made: community policing practices and higher quality training for officers. Known as the 21st Century Policing Task Force, the reforms were abandoned when President Trump took office, one of a number of Obama-era programs the Trump administration has defunded or dropped entirely.
“What we have seen with the current administration is the agency charged with enforcing many of those reforms has shrunk. So, that’s the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the division has shrunk to less than half of what it was in the previous administration.”
A major sticking point for members of Congress trying to craft new legislation is qualified immunity, which is a legal doctrine protecting police officers from lawsuits. Henderson believes the GOP proposal won’t roll back qualified immunity in the manner the Democratic bill, the Justice for Policing Act 2020, does.
“We see communities demanding that it be addressed and demanding that something happens. I’m curious to see whether or not the Republican bill is going to touch qualified immunity, or if they’re going to leave it for the courts to interpret and what that’s going to mean for this justice reform movement.”
Regardless of strides made in police accountability, a stumbling block on the road to reform has always been the unions protecting police.
“Have the actions of these unions interfered with the accountability of individual officers?” It’s an important question Henderson feels needs to be addressed and says while employees are entitled to union protections, collective bargaining agreements can often shield bad officers from disciplinary actions and termination. In fact, when Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin was charged in the murder of George Floyd, Chauvin had 17 complaints filed against him.
“I’ve talked to so many officers that want change, as well. Not every officer is doing bad. Not every officer is unjust. Not every officer is a racist,” he said. “Things have to change, and I think they’re changing.”