Chiefs and Commanding Officers from the San Francisco Police Department converged on San Quentin State Prison to confront preconceived biases by mingling with prisoners for a candid discussion.
Former SF Deputy District Attorney Marisa Rodriguez helped spearhead the unprecedented March 24 event. Recently appointed director for the city’s new Office of Cannabis, Rodriguez also brought her own staff to join in the conversation.
“Being a kid from the inner city, I know my path would have taken a bunch of different turns—but for people who showed they care,” said Rodriguez during her introduction. “I didn’t always have the best interactions with police as a young person.
“It wasn’t my original goal to go into law and become a prosecutor, but I realized it would give me the opportunity to be a voice, and that my voice mattered.”
Rodriguez used her voice to convince six upper echelon members of the SFPD that it would be worth their while to go beyond the entry gates of San Quentin.
“We have some big guns here today. These aren’t just anyone,” said Rodriguez. “These are the top brass of San Francisco’s Police Department.”
San Francisco Police Chief Will Scott had been slated to attend the forum, but an interdepartmental crisis demanded his full attention back in the city.
“Chief Scott wanted to be here today,” said Assistant Chief Toney Chaplin. “I will speak for him. He respects this process and will be here next time.”
Focusing on the prison- ers’ first memories involving police interaction, the guests joined small circles of inmates to listen to the experiences of men with criminal pasts—pasts they have left behind in search of rehabilitation.
Rodriguez directed part of the discussion toward how the “war on drugs” era in criminal prosecutions may have unduly affected these men’s lives before and after their incarceration.
The prisoners’ stories resonated deeply with Director of Crime Strategies Division Tiffany Sutton. “I have to tell you that all of you gave me hope,” she told them before opening up about her own incarcerated brother, who was tried as an adult at the age of 16.
“As a sister, as family—I see it from the other side,” said Director Sutton. “I know change is possible, as long as there are people who show that they care.”
“I couldn’t believe how we all sat together and spoke without any barriers,” said Si Dang, incarcerated for the last 23 years. “We got to talk to one another just per- son to person. …
They really seemed committed to finding solutions to the problems that exist between police and the communities they serve.”
“We do community immersion right now,” said Chief Chaplin. “We have to keep in mind that this [SQ] is part of that community. We need to make this part of the immersion process.
“There’s a lot of power and authority behind that badge we carry. We can do a lot of damage—or we can do a lot of good.”
Jason Samuel appreciated the opportunity to share his own background about attempting to kill a police officer. Today that same officer is his friend through the Victim Offender Dialogue process—and he advocated for Samuel’s upcoming pa- role.
“Didn’t I see you on Van Jones?” said Chief Chaplin as he realized he’d watched Samuel recently on CNN’s Redemption Project.
“That was the highlight of my week,” Samuel later told San Quentin News. “I didn’t expect to have such a deep discussion with them. I was surprised when they clapped after I shared my story. … Hopefully they can do the things we talked about: understanding the communities they patrol and bring that humanizing element to their police work.”
Deputy Chief Ann Mannix shared her deep concern for “two big things”—the origins of criminal behavior and its often direct nexus to mental health.
“The goal is to see far less people in prison—far less people committing crimes,” said Chief Mannix. “We need to figure out how to reach the young people on the streets, because they hate cops.”
Commander Daryl Fong agreed. “We’re supposed to be there to protect our com- munities,” he said. “When I hear that [hatred for police], it makes me cringe. …What can we do as a community, as a police department?”
Deputy Chief Greg McEachern expressed a com- mitment to getting more of his department into SQ to gain insight.
“If I can send some of my line level detectives in here, they’ll start to think a little bit differently,” said Deputy Chief McEachern. “I look at things completely differently now, compared to when I started 29 years ago. …What can we do to be better police officers right now?”
McEachern shared with the prisoners that his son is a recent addition to the SFPD.
“What can I do to make my son a better police officer than I was?” he asked.
Commander David Lazar visited SQ in 1997 as part of the SQUIRES (San Quen- tin’s Utilization of Inmate Resources, Experiences and Studies) program.
“Collaboration is key to all this stuff,” said Commander Lazar. “We can bring in people. Let’s build this. … SQUIRES was powerful. I’m sorry it’s taken me all these years to come back.
“As I listen to all of you, I think of the missed opportunities. If we could fill this room (with troubled youths) and let them listen to you—it’d be such an opportunity to turn them around.”
“We’ve all seen the victim impacts,” said Assistant Chief Chaplin. “But we rarely get to see this side. …
All you men in blue—we want you to have the opportunity to wear any color you want to.”
John Lam, who had his sentence commuted by Governor Brown and was just found suitable for parole, spoke to the outside guests in his circle: “We’re impacted by the stories you share. …
The first impression I had of a police officer—growing up in my neighborhood—was adversarial. ‘He’s not here to protect me. He’s the enemy.’ Now I can see these people actually do care—that’s a major shift.”
“In the last three to four years—we’ve seen it—the world’s changing,” said Deputy Chief McEachern. “All of our officers now are required to go through Implicit Bias Training, trying to change their mindset. …We don’t want them going into every situation immediately think- ing it’s going to be negative.”
“When people take responsibility and accountability for their crimes, there’s definitely a healing process that occurs—one that’s sweeping the country, if not the world,” said Chief Chaplin. “Let’s make it worth something. Let’s not make it worth nothing when someone gets locked up.”
Rodriguez wants to make it an imperative that San Fran- cisco’s Office of Cannabis offer equity toward the once illegal marijuana growers and distributors who hope to be included in the now legal—and thriving—cannabis industry. That’s why she wanted her staff—Deputy Director Eu- gene Hillsman, Associate Director Ray Law, and Permit Analyst Alexandra Sandoval to experience SQ for themselves. Permit Analyst Jeremy Schwartz had a pre-existing family event but hopes to attend a future forum.
“Our directive, essentially, is to right the wrong that was created by the war on drugs,” said Rodriguez.
“We were arresting people for marijuana all the time back then,” said Chief McEachern, reflecting on all his years in the department.
Chief Mannix originally had envisioned bringing teenagers into SQ to provide in- sight into incarceration and rehabilitation, but she realized the message may be better received by even younger prospects.
“I’m going to come back with a group of 12-year-olds, bring in some young kids to hear your stories,” she said. “It’s been a yearning of mine to make a difference.”
All the commanders and chiefs assured the SQ commu- nity that this meet-and-greet was the beginning of bigger things to come.
“We have the ability to start a program where we can bring in 10 or 12 officers every month or so,” said Chief McEachern. “My gang unit could hear some of these stories to get a different perspective.”
Rodriguez and Commander Lazar suggested bringing in new recruits and newly graduated officers.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” noted Commander Lazar.
“This helps everybody on both sides,” said Chief Chaplin. “Chief Scott definitely missed out.”
“There’s moments in history where every now and then we get it right,” said Rodriguez as she closed the forum. “I’m so touched, grateful and excited.
“Across the country, there’s a lot of pain right now—with Black Lives Matter, with Blue Lives Matter. …Thank you all for being on the right side of history today.”
The visitors suggested a name for a future forum incorporating more of their SFPD peers and SQ prisoners: “A Blue and Blue Conversation.”