Complaints against SF cops hit low mark, but public remains skeptical 

click to enlarge Joyce Hicks
  • Mike Koozmin/the S.F. Examiner
  • Joyce Hicks, head of the Office of Citizen Complaints, stands by her agency’s investigations, but says the OCC is working to handle cases in a more timely manner.
Joyce Hicks, the head of The City’s only body with the sole responsibility to investigate police misconduct, stood before a vocally angry crowd in late March. They had gathered for a community meeting held by the Police Department after the officer-involved shooting death of Alejandro Nieto.

Hicks, the executive director of the Office of Citizen Complaints, was there to reassure people that her office takes the complaints it receives seriously.

However, a federal indictment against six current and former police officers over illegal searches, along with three officer-involved shootings last month, including the one that killed Nieto, have raised questions about the effectiveness of the three-decades-old watchdog office. Doubts aside, a look at the OCC’s annual report shows that 2013 had the lowest number of complaints in 21 years, which could indicate that there are fewer issues with police misconduct.

Furthermore, the office has made great strides in correcting problems identified in a 2007 audit.

Still, staffing shortages and hundreds of pending cases remain issues.

While the office and the Police Commission, which oversees it, have tried to reassure the public, doubts remain about an agency with a scarred past.

“I know there’s an OCC and an investigation, but we know what the results are — they [the officer-involved shootings] are always justified,” said Gloria La Riva of the ANSWER Coalition, or Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, at the March meeting where Hicks spoke.

Six percent of the 727 cases opened in 2013 — 722 were closed that year — were sustained, or found to have involved wrongdoing, which is the same rate as in 2012.

Three of the OCC’s 2013 closed cases were officer-involved shootings. In one case it made a sustained finding.

The report also pointed out that staffing continues to be an issue at the OCC.

According to the report, a 2007 audit called “Weak Case Management and Organizational Issues Degrade the OCC’s Performance” by the City Controller’s Office found that OCC investigators had a far higher “caseload than investigators in comparable agencies.” The average comparable caseload is 16 per investigator. At the time, the OCC’s caseload average was 34 per investigator.

Not surprisingly, the audit dinged the office for its logjam of complaints.

However, major improvements have been made, according to an update of the audit released in 2012.

While the average caseload has decreased, it still remains high at 21.

“Insufficient staffing continued to have a negative impact on time it took to investigate a case to completion,” noted the updated audit.

That small staff contributed to the 312 cases still pending at year’s end. Three of those cases were officer-involved shootings, two of which resulted in the death of suspects.

Other pending cases include a complaint about the adequacy of an investigation into a bicyclist’s death; a missing persons report filed by the family of Lynne Spalding, who was found dead in a San Francisco General Hospital stairwell; and an incident alleging excessive force, among other things, at the Valencia Gardens housing complex. While the OCC was investigating the case involving six officers indicted on federal charges for thefts and unlawful entry into residential hotels, Hicks said the investigation was ended after a federal court order.

This reality is not news to the OCC’s leader, who said she would like more than 17 investigators, but her budget only gives her so much money to spend.

“I do not believe the public distrusts our ability to do the job based on the complaints that we receive. However, it’s my desire to provide the public with more timely decisions,” said Hicks, who contends that she runs an independent operation that can and has in the past gone over the police chief’s head to file charges against officers at the Police Commission.

“Overall I think the report’s very good,” said Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who prompted the investigation that led to the recent federal indictment against the six police officers. But, he added, “The report also makes clear that OCC doesn’t have the resources it needs to adequately investigate all the cases that are assigned to it.”

John Burris, a well-known Bay Area civil-rights attorney, said he sends clients to the OCC for investigations.

“On balance, I think they do a pretty decent job,” Burris said of the office.

The OCC’s report was released March 12. It has yet to be presented to the Police Commission.

Citizen complaints

727*: Cases received

722: Cases closed

535: Number of officers receiving complaints in 2013 (25 percent of force)

59: Cases mediated

43: Sustained cases where wrongdoing was found

6%**: Rate of sustained cases

*Lowest number of complaints in 21 years

**Second-lowest rate of sustained cases in 21 years

Source: Office of Citizen Complaints

How the OCC works

Founded in 1982, the OCC investigates police misconduct complaints. The findings of their investigations then go before the police chief, who decides on what kind of punishment is warranted for less serious matters. The Police Commission hears the more serious cases. The chief and the OCC have the power to file charges with the commission.

About The Author

Jonah Owen Lamb

Jonah Owen Lamb

Born and raised on a houseboat in Sausalito, Lamb has written for newspapers in New York City, Utah and the San Joaquin Valley. He was most recently an editor at the San Luis Obispo Tribune for nearly three years. He has written for The S.F. Examiner since 2013 and covers criminal justice and planning.
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