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Implicit bias trainer finds ‘extreme’ degree of anti-black sentiment within SFPD

Michael Barba

Feb 12, 2020

A city worker came forward with deep concerns about racism being pervasive within San Francisco’s police force after teaching anti-bias classes to officers for more than two years, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

A city worker came forward with deep concerns about racism being pervasive within San Francisco’s police force after teaching anti-bias classes to officers for more than two years, the San Francisco Examiner has learned.

Then-Department of Human Resources manager Dante King offered his damning assessment of the San Francisco Police Department in a farewell email to his boss and Police Chief Bill Scott last April.

“The degree of anti-black sentiment throughout SFPD is extreme,” King wrote in the email to Scott and DHR Director Micki Callahan. The Examiner obtained the email through a public records request last week.

“While there are some at SFPD who possess somewhat of a balanced view of racism and anti-blackness, there are an equal number (if not more) — who possess and exude deeply rooted anti-black sentiments,” King said.

The email raises questions about the progress the department has made toward reforms since the U.S. Department of Justice reviewed the SFPD in October 2016 and found “numerous indicators of implicit and institutionalized bias against minority groups.”

“Honestly, it is heartbreaking to hear this three years into the Department of Justice reforms,” said Police Commissioner John Hamasaki. “Let me be absolutely clear, racism and white supremacy have no place in SFPD.”

Hamasaki said he would ask King to appear before the commission and expand on his concerns.

The DOJ reviewed the department after a racist text messaging scandal and several controversial police shootings of black and Latino men rattled the SFPD.

As of Wednesday, the SFPD had completed just over 16 percent of the 272 recommendations for reform issued by the DOJ, including six related to bias, according to David Stevenson, a police spokesperson.

At the time of the email, the department had completed nearly 5 percent, including two for bias.

When asked whether Chief Scott took action in response to the email, Stevenson said SFPD “has continued to embrace implicit bias training as part of our overall collaborative reform work.”

“No human being or organization is bias free,” Stevenson said. “That’s why the SFPD places great value in implicit bias training. In this training, DHR provides a safe, confidential environment for city workers to have frank, sometimes difficult conversations; and to define, identify and openly discuss implicit bias and personal experiences.”

A spokesperson for DHR said “complaints of racism are taken very seriously and investigated.”

“While we cannot comment on specific investigations related to personnel matters, we can however, express our deep understanding of the level of discomfort that difficult conversations about race may bring up for individuals,” said Mawuli Tugbenyoh, chief of policy for DHR.

King declined to comment when reached by the Examiner.

In his email, King talked about a sergeant who said he would chase a black suspect over a white suspect because “statistics show black people commit more crimes.” He described officers responding to his lessons on race with an “immense amount of anger.”

King said the reactions to his classes demonstrate the “compromised integrity of SFPD.”

King specifically named one high-ranking officer who, at a lunch with lieutenants and captains, allegedly told him that the “the class would be received much better if I were a white person.”

“We would be able to hear you better,” the officer allegedly said. “Most of the people in the room would be able to hear you better.”

While the SFPD redacted the name of the officer, saying the email constituted a complaint against an officer, multiple sources confirmed to the Examiner that he is Capt. Jason Cherniss.

As captain of Tenderloin Station in 2014, Cherniss was one of the officers named in a lawsuit accusing the SFPD of racial discrimination for arresting only black drug dealers during a joint operation with federal authorities.

But a judge dismissed the claims against Cherniss after the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the case, could not show he directly played a role in the operation. The lawsuit was recently settled for $225,000.

On Wednesday, Deputy Chief Mikail Ali defended Cherniss and said the interaction may have been a misunderstanding.

“Jason and I have had this conversation about how do we convey the importance of social justice in our department,” Ali said. “He is a person that I go to regularly on the issues of social justice to bounce off ideas and get his perspective.”

“Jason is, I don’t even want to say it, he’s not a racist,” he added.

Ali said Cherniss may have been trying to convey that, “if you want to touch the hearts and minds of people who may be engaged in conduct that might be antithetical to social justice, then it would behoove us to identify people who they can relate with.”

As for the lawsuit against Cherniss, Ali said the racial bias allegations “aren’t reflective of him at the least.”

Cherniss did not respond to a request for comment.

King sent his email in part as a response to a “severely” racist blog post from April 2019 about acting Captain Yulanda Williams, the outspoken leader of a group for black members of the SFPD called Officers for Justice.

The blog post, from a retired Sacramento sheriff’s deputy, included pictures of Williams and made jokes about her hair being an “officer safety issue.” One retired San Francisco police officer responded positively to the post.

King said the post and response demonstrate “an unsafe environment for the black public being served by the force; as well as an unsafe environment for black people who work on the force.”

King concluded his email with a series of recommendations including that the SFPD annually require officers to undergo “extensive” anti-racism and anti-sexism training as well as hold meetings to support “black staff who may feel uncomfortable with the culture in the environment — as I have heard from several.”

He left DHR for another city job at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Speaking as one of the vice presidents of the local NAACP and in her role as the recently re-elected president of Officers for Justice, Williams called the email “alarming.”

“This is a clear example of a pre-existing internal, psychological problem within this organization,” said Williams, who filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the department last year. “The relationship between the police and public has been and remains strained.”

Williams said the top leadership of the department, including Chief Scott and Catherine McGuire, the civilian executive director of the strategic management bureau, are in their positions “specifically to carry out reform.”

“Yet here we are three years later with a grade of an ‘F’ in leiu of the fact that only 22 of 272 recommendations have been accomplished,” Williams said. (The department says it has completed 45 as of Wednesday).

When read excerpts from the email Wednesday, members of the Police Commission responded with concern.

“It sounds deeply troubling,” said Police Commission Vice President Damali Taylor.

“I was feeling good about the progress we’ve been making,” Taylor said with regard to reforms. “What you just read to me, if true, is really a problem.”

Police Commissioner Cindy Elias, who is part of a working group that is updating the department’s anti-bias policy, said it was “devastating” to hear about the email.

“It is frustrating because this process is taking so long,” Elias said. “But I think the good news is, progress is being made, however slow. As we build momentum, and as we build awareness, I think that the movement will progress at a faster pace.”

Stevenson, the police spokesperson, said the commission will hear the policy in March.

Once approved, Stevenson said the SFPD “will be the first department in the nation to address bias by proxy in its biased policing policy.”

In response to the email, former Supervisor Malia Cohen said “I’m concerned that we may be regressing or going back to our old habits.”

Cohen focused closely on reform amid public outcry over police shootings before terming out in December 2018.

“We had thoughtful long hearings around how we were moving forward,” Cohen said. “There was momentum. We were solving this.”

But Cohen said there has since been a lack of leadership on the issue citywide.

“There doesn’t seem to have been any movement,” Cohen said. “So it doesn’t surprise me that the memo that Mr. Dante King drafted is out there.”

Cohen said the Board of Supervisors should take leadership on the issue, and to a lesser extent, the Mayor’s Office.

“However, we do need the mayor to give 100 percent engagement on this issue if we are going to see change,” she said.

Her successor, Supervisor Shamann Walton, said the email is “disturbing” and “concerning.” But the conduct described is not limited to the SFPD, he said.

“There is not a city department that I am excited about their practices in terms of how they treat their black employees,” Walton said. “That’s across the board.”

Walton said he plans to hold a hearing March 19 on discrimination and promotions across all departments.

This story has been updated.

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