Justice for Mario Woods: ACLU Calls for Federal Investigation of the SFPD
Update (April 27, 2016): We received a response from the Department of Justice to our request for a court-enforced pattern and practice investigation. We continue to call for an investigation.
Update (April 11, 2016): We've issued an apology for mischaracterizing the shooting deaths of Alex Nieto and Idriss Stelley in our January letter to the DOJ. Please find more information here.
Today, the ACLU of Northern California and the ACLU Disability Rights Program sent a letter to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) urging a federal pattern and practice investigation into the SFPD for systemic civil rights violations, including the killing of Mario Woods, a young Black disabled man. Mario's death at the hands of police on Dec. 2, 2015 is unfortunately only one instance of the long-standing and deep-rooted failures in the workings of the SFPD, especially as it interacts with communities of color, Black people in particular, and people with disabilities.
We join our voices to the calls made by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee; the San Francisco Board of Supervisors; activists; and John Burris, the attorney for Mario Woods’ mother.
The Department of Justice has the unique tools and authority to independently investigate the SFPD. Only the federal government can put in motion the systemic change that the SFPD’s failures require, through enforceable deadlines and independent oversight.
We must address the myriad systemic issues at play to make sure that a horrific police killing like the death of Mario Woods never happens again in this city.
San Francisco is not immune to racism or abuse of people with disabilities. Community pressure and tireless organizing by Black leaders have helped remind the City that we need outside help to truly address the crisis of the SFPD’s failures.
These ingrained problems include:
- Excessive use of deadly force against young men of color
- Ample evidence of the persistent presence of racial bias
- Failure to train and supervise officers to use crisis intervention and de-escalation strategies in dealing with people with disabilities
- Fundamental lack of accountability throughout the SFPD and its oversight agencies
As our letter states:
As horrific as the shooting of Mario Woods is in isolation, people and public officials in San Francisco saw it in a context which made it even more alarming. Since 2000, SFPD officers have shot at least 103 people – 37 have died. In each of the 37 deaths, the Department found that the use of force was within policy and merited no discipline.
A 2014 analysis found that more than half of 19 individuals killed by San Francisco police between 2005 and January 2014 – 11 out of 19 – had a mental illness.
In its internal review of the [police shooting of Teresa Sheehan, a woman in psychiatric crisis,] San Francisco found the shooting to be “in policy.” The Department still does not have a policy requiring crisis intervention and de-escalation strategies for persons with psychiatric disabilities subject to involuntary detention.
In 2013, black adults in San Francisco were 6 percent of the population, yet 40 percent of the people arrested, 44 percent of people jailed and 40 percent of people convicted. Black adults are 7 times as likely as whites to be arrested. And this disproportionality has significantly grown in the last twenty years.
However, nothing has been more illuminating than the uncovering in April of 2015 of a series of venomous and hateful text messages exchanged between SFPD officers. These messages only came to light as a result of a federal criminal prosecution. The messages contained a series of racist and homophobic comments, characterizing black people as dangerous in the most insulting terms possible, including a liberal use of the “n” word. In the wake of the text disclosures, the San Francisco District Attorney's Office launched a wide-ranging investigation that has apparently been met with stonewalling from the SFPD, and even failure to meet legal deadlines to provide public information.
These festering problems at the core of the SFPD show why any investigation that the DOJ conducts must address the SFPD’s workings as a whole in order to be effective.
San Francisco’s police need a pattern and practice investigation in order to move forward. San Francisco’s diverse communities need this investigation to do right by them. We all need a thorough investigation of the department’s systemic issues in order to heal.
Alan Schlosser is Senior Counsel with the ACLU of Northern California.