Watching the police

Civilian oversight system underfunded and prone to political pressures

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rebecca@sfbg.com

Nearly two years ago, on July 18, 2012, on-duty San Francisco police officer Mary Godfrey fired her weapon twice, killing 32-year-old Oakland resident Pralith Pralourng in an encounter at Washington and Davis streets.

Following the incident, police said Pralourng was mentally ill and had lunged at Godfrey with a box cutter, prompting her to fire in defense of her own life. Just before it happened, Pralourng had slashed his coworker at Tcho chocolate factory and fled.

Last September, the San Francisco Police Department honored Godfrey with a silver medal of valor for her conduct in that incident. The second-highest possible honor, silver medals are awarded in cases where an officer exhibits "outstanding bravery in the performance of duty," according to a definition on the SFPD website, and "risks his or her life with full and unquestionable knowledge of the danger involved."

However, an internal affairs investigation into the officer-involved shooting remained open at the time that the medal was awarded. In fact, in a May 5 voicemail, police spokesperson Albie Esparza confirmed to the Bay Guardian: "That case is still open, so there is no more information that we are going to release at this time."

More than eight months have passed since Godfrey was honored — and yet the shooting is still under investigation.

The San Francisco Police Commission voted to approve Godfrey's silver medal, along with a list of other medal of valor recipients, at its June 26, 2013 meeting. But it was Commissioner Angela Chan, who was recently denied reappointment to her post in a 7-4 vote by the Board of Supervisors, who cast the lone dissenting vote (See "SFBG Wrap" in this issue).

Chan was later quoted in press reports as saying she believed that awarding Godfrey with a medal of valor before the formal investigative process had concluded seemed to undermine that process. Internal affairs investigations are part of the city's formal process to ensure police accountability. San Francisco also has an independent city department, the Office of Citizen Complaints, which provides civilian oversight by making determinations about citizen complaints alleging officer misconduct.

Chan's dissenting vote prompted a backlash from the San Francisco Police Officers Association. In a blistering letter dated September 11, 2013, President Martin Halloran informed police commissioners of the POA's "extreme disappointment" in the dissenting vote, also sending a copy of the letter to Mayor Ed Lee.

"Officer Godfrey was extremely upset when I met with her and immediately voiced her regret at having to take the life of another human being," Halloran wrote. "It is every officer's worst nightmare. The emotional and psychological trauma following an officer involved shooting can be severe, and it is absolutely essential that officers involved in these types of incidents receive positive reinforcement, as well as counseling, to reassure them that they did nothing wrong."

Counseling seems appropriate, but Halloran's blanket statement that officers involved in deadly use of force incidents should be reassured that "they did nothing wrong" seems to discount the city's process for determining whether or not an officer's action was justified.

The SFPOA president went on to note that his organization has long complained that "officers are left hanging for months, and in some cases years, before being recognized for their heroic acts, sometimes making them feel more insecure and raising more self-doubts about their actions."

The SFPOA's overt condemnation of Chan for her dissent suggests that the police commissioner faced strong opposition from a politically powerful entity when she came up for reappointment.