Ever since the eruption of violence in Ferguson, Missouri, following the death of Michael Brown, the nation’s police have come under severe scrutiny for any evidence of racial bias. The deaths of Eric Garner in New York, Walter Scott in Charleston, South Carolina, and Freddie Gray in Baltimore only intensified the focus on police tactics as buildings burned, protestors stopped freeway and bridge traffic, and cops clashed with civilians. Amid cries that “black lives matter,” widespread riots and further civil unrest have put police on their heels in cities that need their protection the most.
San Francisco police chief Greg Suhr responded to the threat of public turbulence and heightened awareness in a departmental bulletin published on April 27. Titled “Avoiding the ‘Lawful but Awful’ Use of Force,” the chief’s memorandum, number 15-106, began with something very close to an admission that his main concern involved publicity—not the safety of the police and public, but the media image of his subordinates and himself. “A ‘Lawful but Awful’ use of force is a use of force that is within the law and within Department policy,” Suhr wrote, “but an action that produces an undesirable outcome which is tragic not only for the individual(s) involved, but for all those touched by or exposed to the event.”
Reading like a disciplinary lecture from a high school principal, Suhr’s guidance noted that a previous bulletin “requires officers to create time, distance, and establish a rapport with people in crisis who are only a danger to themselves.” Creating “time, distance, and . . . rapport” seems to be bureaucratic jargon mandating that police give people threatening them and others a period for reflection, an opportunity to detach themselves from a confrontation, and an offer of sympathy and comfort. Suhr’s memorandum repeats the formula, embellishing on it and emphasizing that “the strongest officers are those who consider all options—including creating time, distance, and establishing a rapport.” Bulletin 15-106 concludes, in an idiom weak in literacy, “An officer may not discharge a firearm at a person who presents a danger only to him or herself, and there is no reasonable cause to believe that the person poses an imminent danger of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or any other person” (bolded phrase and italics in the original bulletin).
SFPD’s rank and file have interpreted the bulletin as an order to give offenders a “head start” (time) in escaping the scene (distance) of their disputes with law enforcement and ordinary citizens, encouraged by the friendly demeanor (rapport) of police they encounter. Officers of the law, not for the first time, are expected to conduct themselves in the manner of social workers. While such an approach to disorderly and illegal behavior is hardly new, it appears especially inappropriate when outbursts of civil upheaval are spreading.
The mission of police to maintain public order is obstructed in San Francisco, where lawlessness and contempt for the rights of others increase daily. Notwithstanding the technological revolution continuing in nearby Silicon Valley, San Franciscans must contend each day with more homeless occupying the pavements and parks, more aggression against ordinary people attempting to go about their business, and more outright, serious lawbreaking. Faced with growing turmoil, Chief Suhr has commanded his troops to stand down, the better to avoid media hostility.
Police personnel in the city are discontented with the bulletin and the attitude it represents, which they view as requirement for a “hands off” approach to miscreants. For the benefit of police and citizens alike, Suhr should withdraw his memo. But he is unlikely to do so. For those responsible for the tranquility of San Francisco, an image of failure appears preferable to media complications produced by “lawful but awful” use of force. In such an environment, fewer people will feel the call to put on the badge and protect and serve the public.