San Francisco Police return to SQ for talks on social justice, reform
Top leadership of the San Francisco police department gathered with a group of criminal justice experts in San Quentin’s Garden Chapel in April to discuss ways to reduce crime and improve their policing.
The experts had earned their knowledge the hard way — by making mistakes and doing time in prison for those crimes. These “men in blue” from the outside are part of SQ News’ “Blue and Blue” law enforcement forum series.
“I’m very grateful to be able to share our knowledge like this,” said San Quentin’s Anthony Tafoya.
The immediate goal of these forums is to provide a platform for honest dialogue between the groups. Long-term, the goal is to promote true public safety for all communities, regardless of wealth, status, or race.
The first “Blue and Blue” forum was held in March 2019 and earned enthusiastic support for more meetings from the San Francisco police brass.
“We don’t get an opportunity like this very often,” said Deputy Chief David Lazar. “There is probably nothing like this going on right now in any other prison in California.”
Sgt. Brittany Lewis added, “We need better communication to build more trust and respect.”
Some of the officers were initially reluctant to come, and of the original 24 members of the force scheduled, only 12 arrived. But once there, coming together for direct communication appeared to have the desired effect.
“I really like the respect that was shown today, almost like a brotherhood, with everybody dishing out information to help both sides,” Sgt. Eric Anderson said at the debriefing circle.
San Quentin’s Desmond Lewis said he “appreciated people coming together to use their highest level of intelligence to come up with solutions for problems we all see.”
Officer Roger Moore came away impressed. “It takes a lot of courage to open up and share here as you have today,” Moore said. “This has been an incredible experience. I’m very appreciative for this opportunity. Everyone is very brave, and I am very humbled.”
Before the officers arrived, some of the incarcerated men in blue fidgeted nervously. “I haven’t talked to a police officer since my arrest,” said Mova Vue. “I’m still trying to get comfortable just having a conversation with regular outside folks.”
At the beginning of the event, everyone sat in a large circle. SQ News’ Timothy Hicks served as the emcee and explained the group rules and goals of the forum.
Introducing himself, he said he was doing time for double-manslaughter, and recounted the fear he felt during his trial when facing the prospect of the death penalty.
Hicks also shared his pain from recently losing a nephew to gun violence. He emphasized the need to find solutions to the crime that plagues our cities, including his hometown of Oakland.
During the introductions, the two dozen incarcerated participants were transparent about why they were in prison, some of them saying the name of their deceased victim and choking with remorse.
The police in attendance were mostly 10- to 20-year veterans of the force, many of them from families with long traditions of working in law enforcement. Notably, one of them has a loved one who was formerly incarcerated.
As the introductions progressed, some of the officers’ faces seem to harden, their eyes staring somewhere far away. Altogether, the incarcerated men gathered in the room were serving over 1,000 years of time, with many life sentences. It seemed symbolic that such a meeting was happening in a church.
“We’re all human, we all make mistakes,” said Sgt. David Johnson later.
“I don’t think anyone is bad, people just make bad choices,” said Philippe Kelly, an incarcerated peer-mentor and actor.
After the introductions, small groups formed to tackle questions on the roots of crime, crime prevention, and improving policing and public safety.
San Quentin’s Brian Asey shared his journey to prison with the officers in his group. “The environment I grew up in — the gangs, the lack of resources, that all played a part in my crime … but in the end, I still made choices to commit crimes.”
He added that all of his crimes were committed while he was under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Many of the officers, with their breadth of experience, said the reasons for crime depend on the specific circumstances involved, which vary greatly.
“I think it’s often a simple matter of necessity sometimes — no food, no rent, maybe an addiction too,” said Sgt. Eric Solares.
Common themes that emerged included childhood trauma, parental abuse and neglect, a lack of resources, low self-esteem, broken trust, anger, drugs, gangs, and poverty. In other words, systemic problems that need solutions.
“I lacked a sense of purpose. I wasn’t given any tools to deal with the trauma I had been through,” said Tu Tran, who grew up as a foster kid in an area with gangs.
He said his thinking was, “‘I bet money will help me feel better, I bet some Louis Vuitton will help me feel better.’ This pursuit of material things, to fill the void within, led to my crime, which was also true of all my friends.”
San Quentin’s Michael Moore added, “I’ve asked myself the last 26 years. “Why did this happen? For me, it all goes back to my childhood and a lack of intervention when I was young.”
Officer Paul said everyone can agree about the importance of reaching out to youth and having successful interventions at the right age.
Candid conversations were had about the need for better policing and how to rebuild trust with communities impacted by mass incarceration and heavy-handed police tactics.
Raiveon Wooden said his trust in police was broken at an early age. He described how he was traumatized by seeing his older brother deal with aggressive cops, with jail, with invasive probation officers.
Sgt. Solares acknowledged this dynamic, “One bad experience is all it takes to create a belief that cops only want to take people to jail,” he said.
Kelly added that it’s very important that police hold themselves accountable when they break the law. “A narrative that I hear on the news, in my communities, is ‘blue protects the blue,’ no matter what,” he said in regard to the perception of an unwritten code between police officers.
Sgt. Johnson said police officers are human and make mistakes. “We see it, too,” he said of videos of police shooting unarmed people — usually young Black men suspected of crimes. “We see it and think, ‘Ah man, they messed up, they panicked.’”
He emphasized how much experience and proper training matter. “With experience, you learn to tell when someone is packing a gun or not from their movements … but when you’re new, when you’re poorly trained, you can’t tell, you’re afraid everybody is packing … it’s easy to panic.”
In response to a question about trying for non-lethal gun shots, Sgt. Lewis said in the heat of the moment, in a split second, it is hard to target limbs versus the bigger target of the torso. She explained there is a greater risk of hitting someone else behind the intended target. “It’s not the calm of a shooting range,” she said.
Officer Colin Ryan said his department is challenged by “staff that are stretched thin, policies that are always changing.” He mentioned sometimes policies sound good on paper, but can cause unintended problems.
He cited body cams as an example, describing how they make having real conversations or negotiating with people more difficult. Once it clicks on, he said, everything becomes formal and by the book.
Sergio Alvarez, who has served as a pastor while incarcerated, said that despite the challenges they face, police have a “special responsibility because they have special authority. You have to set the tone first.”
Officer Chris Canning said, “Sometimes being a police officer, it’s hard to unplug from being a cop.” He said they encourage their officers to do that, but it is difficult without opportunities for direct interactions outside of a law enforcement setting.
Experiences like the forum, he said, are the “key to unlock the door we’re trying to open. It’s helpful to see we are both from the same coin, we’re all people, we’re all dealing with stuff.”
Tran agreed, observing that, “People can’t look past a police officer, even when in their regular clothes, just like the formerly incarcerated aren’t looked past, even in street clothes.
“That’s one of the things we both have in common, we’re trying to clean up our images. What better way to do that than together?”
San Quentin’s Steve Warren added, “It’s important not to see one bad apple and judge the whole group. We don’t want that, just like the cops don’t want that.”
“Building relationships with people is key,” acknowledged Sgt. Solares. He recalled a community policing program he was involved with called March Gladness where officers played three-on-three basketball with young people to build trust with the community. He said it made a lasting impression on him and the young people.
After the small-group discussions, everyone reconvened together to debrief about their takeaways from the day.
Deputy Chief Lazar thanked everyone for participating. He noted most of his staff in attendance were in high-ranking leadership positions with lots of influence over others in the department.
“When we make that arrest, we need to remember … that people grow, they learn. They evolve over time, they are not the same people anymore as when they came in,” he said.
Multiple officers said they were impressed with the honesty and accountability displayed by the men of San Quentin, and the progress they had made through rehabilitative programming.
Officer Ryan noted there is a “lot of common ground in our thoughts. It all boils down to meeting each other halfway with trust and respect.”
San Quentin’s Jesse Rose envisioned a future where he could call 911 and say, “Yes, 911, we’re having a community meeting at the park. Please send down two officers right away to represent at the table.”
Time went by too fast, and at the end of the forum, no one seemed ready to leave. After the group photograph, outside the chapel, people lingered in small groups having impassioned conversations.
Police officers were leaning in close to really hear what the men in blue on the inside had to say, and the same respect was given in return.
As Officer Moore turned to leave, his eyes were bright and full of excitement, his smile warm and genuine.
“Anytime people come together in a circle, come face-to-face and see eye-to-eye, with the intention of doing good, then something powerful is going to happen,” he said.