Police chief calls Chronicle series 'irresponsible'
Mistaken identity calls data into question, Fong says
- Jaxon Van Derbeken, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 7, 2006
San Francisco Police Chief Heather Fong held a press conference Monday to denounce The Chronicle's ongoing series about the Police Department's use of force as "irresponsible'' and a "disservice'' to the city.
As evidence, Fong held up The Chronicle's Sunday edition, which featured a large photograph of a man the paper mistakenly identified as Sgt. John Haggett, an officer whose use-of-force history was profiled in an accompanying story. The man in the photo is not Haggett, has never been a police officer and has nothing to do with the series, the paper acknowledged Monday.
"This is not Sgt. John Haggett,'' Fong said. "If this photo is inaccurate, I have serious concerns about the analysis of all of the other data that they have obtained.''
The chief, flanked by command staff members, said she had talked with the city attorney about possible legal action stemming from the series but would not be more specific.
Chronicle editors said they stood by the accuracy of the articles in "The Use of Force" and the series' analysis.
"The photo error, while serious, does not change the basic issues raised by the series about the department's lack of a reliable system for tracking use of force and its failure to hold accountable officers who repeatedly resort to use of force," Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein said.
The series reports that a core group of roughly 100 officers, out of a force of 2,200, is accountable for 25 percent of the uses of force logged between 1996 and 2004. In any given year, two-thirds to three-quarters of the department's officers report using no force at all, the series reports.
Seventy-eight of the officers appeared on a watch list the department maintains to check on officers who might be using force too often. An officer's name appears on the list when he or she has reported using force three or more times in a quarter of a calendar year.
The series also found that in the years 2001 to 2004, more force allegations were filed against San Francisco officers than against officers in San Jose, Oakland, San Diego and Seattle combined.
The stories report that the department lags far behind many other major cities in developing an effective system for identifying its problem officers and has failed repeatedly to take steps to get these officers off the streets.
Fong stressed that she was proud of her officers and confident in their "professionalism as well as dedication of duty.''
Fong suggested the series was biased. "It was not the intention of this article to look at good things,'' she said.
She did acknowledge that the series included a favorable profile of an officer working in the crime-ridden Tenderloin who has not been the target of complaints.
Fong said she found inaccuracies in the stories but declined to detail them. Instead, she said they portrayed the department with a broad brush and gave an incomplete picture.
"I just think it's irresponsible,'' she said.
She said the department had asked for the data The Chronicle used about use-of-force complaints from other cities but that the paper had refused.
"If we do not know the source of the data, if we do not know the methodology of comparison, how can we then accept that the conclusions are valid or factual?'' Fong said.
Bronstein said The Chronicle had reviewed records and transcripts of reporters' interviews and found no request from Fong for data the paper had gathered about citizen complaints about police use of force in other cities.
"The data we obtained from other cities' citizen complaints offices are easily obtainable directly from those offices," Bronstein said.
Fong stressed that use of force is a complex issue "laden with many intricacies.''
"Simply using force does not mean an officer is wrong," she said. "Simply using force does not mean misconduct.''
She said a very small number of excessive-force complaints lodged against San Francisco police officers are upheld.
Fong also noted that some incidents recounted in the series date back 15 years or longer.
"The past is the past,'' she said.
Over the last two years, she said, "we have been working very hard to improve a number of things.'' She said the department plans to introduce changes later this year in the way it tracks officers' use of force as well as other factors, including how often an officer calls in sick, is involved in accidents or is named in civil litigation or civilian and internally generated complaints.
"I assure you we take the issue of use of force very seriously," Fong said. "But most importantly, I want to assure that the officers of this department in carrying out their duties are very deliberate, cautious and they are very restrained in when and how they use force and do so only when the circumstances are such that they must resist the force that is being used against them.''
Monday night, Mayor Gavin Newsom took issue with the paper's statement that he had not made himself available for an interview about the series despite several requests.
"It is factually baseless," Newsom said. "If anyone knows me, I'm readily accessible to the press on every issue and meet with The Chronicle consistently. Not one question has ever been brought up. So we actually put a paper trail together of e-mails to set the record straight. With all due respect, I want that record set straight. It's a complete misrepresentation and truly damaging."
Bronstein said Chronicle reporter Susan Sward had submitted nine written requests for an interview with Newsom in the three weeks leading up to publication of the series. Mayoral spokesman Peter Ragone replied in e-mails that Newsom would be available but never responded to requests for a specific time or day, Bronstein said.
On Monday, Sward again asked Ragone whether she could interview the mayor, Bronstein said. Ragone responded that "the short answer ... is yes" but offered no time or date, Bronstein said.
In his comments Monday, Newsom said the city is working on the issue of use of force.
"No one is running from this," he said. "We get it. We completely understand it. We have a lot of work to do. We said that from day one."
He said The Chronicle series was "bringing up very good points. We acknowledge those points."
But he added, "Remember, this is 15 years of data that's been collected. It predates my even being mayor. This data only goes through 2004 -- it doesn't include last year and the chief and her efforts and what she's trying to achieve."
"While we disagree with the mayor about the interview," Bronstein said, "we appreciate the fact that he supports major points of our series. The city will benefit from him addressing this issue."