Few opponents of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin have been more outspoken or more angry with him than the Police Officers Association. During his campaign to become DA, Boudin was described by the POA as the “#1 choice of criminals and gang members”. More recently, the POA blamed Boudin for low morale and higher crime rates.
Although the POA has not taken an official position on Boudin’s June 7 recall or donated to the recall campaign, many answers to why the association criticized the San Francisco prosecutor can be found in the history of the POA.
Whiter and more conservative SF
The POA has its roots in a much whiter and more conservative San Francisco. Although the association was founded in 1946, to understand the POA, a good starting point is the late 1960s. During these years of political and racial contestation, the POA was deeply committed to preventing the integration of police forces. The SFPD, like many police forces across the country, was predominantly white and male – and the POA, again like many police unions across the country, was committed to maintaining the predominantly white, male force . In the 1970s, the POA also took a strong stance against efforts to hire gay and lesbian police officers.
This led to the formation of a group called Officers for Justice, made up of the few black police officers. Justice officers eventually had to sue the POA to integrate the force in 1973. This lawsuit lasted several years and culminated in a federal consent decree under the Carter administration requiring the SFPD to integrate quickly.
Police unions like the POA, in San Francisco and elsewhere, have long played two roles: collective bargaining and contract negotiation for police officers; and espousing reactionary pro-police positions aimed at undermining any effort to exert meaningful civilian control over the police.
In San Francisco, that means the POA has long been one of the city’s most visible conservative institutions. But the POA’s negotiating responsibilities put it in a complex position. As a union, the POA wants a municipal government that is worker-friendly and willing to award generous contracts to municipal workers; but these positions are generally taken by actors more left of center who are less willing to give the police carte blanche to fight crime and treat San Franciscans more or less as they see fit.
This conflict came to a head during the 1975 police strike.
A scary time
In 1975, crime was a huge problem in San Francisco. If you think that sounds familiar, you’re wrong. During those years, the city had about two-thirds of its current population and more than double in violent crime.
By late summer 1975, negotiations between the POA and The City had stalled. The city was in bad financial shape, but the POA’s basic demand—that police officers’ pay and raises be the same as the LAPD—was not unreasonable. Nevertheless, the City, largely due to fiscal conservatives like John Barbagelata and Quentin Kopp on the supervisory board, were unwilling to give the POA such a generous contract.
Negotiations failed and the police went on strike. The strike only lasted four days, but it was a troubling and scary time for The City. Those days were defined by a fear of crime and lawlessness, compounded when a pipe bomb was discovered outside the home of Mayor Joseph Alioto. Alioto quickly settled the strike by granting the POA’s demands, even though the strike itself was technically illegal. It was both an economic and political victory for the POA, as it got the contract it wanted and was able to demonstrate its political strength and indispensability in San Francisco.
The strike coincided with a fierce campaign for mayor and may have helped the candidacy of conservative law-and-order candidate Barbagelata – which overtook the more centrist and favored Dianne Feinstein – for earn a place in the second round. Barbagelata then lost the run-off to George Moscone who campaigned on, among other things, a pledge to hold police accountable for the mistreatment of San Franciscans, especially those who were racial minorities or homosexuals.
Moscone and the POA
Moscone almost immediately got off on the wrong foot with the POA. Moscone, like Boudin today, committed the political crime of doing what he promised to do during his campaign. In Moscone’s case, that meant trying to reform and integrate the police. Moscone appointed Police Chief Charles Gain, who was a reformer who had served in Oakland.
The POA railed against Gain for things like removing the American flag from his desk and replacing the traditional black-and-white police cars with a friendlier shade of sky blue. The anger against Gain was never just about the colors or flags of the cars, but about the efforts of a city official to redesign the police to reflect the city’s changing demographics and culture.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to discuss the history of the POA in San Francisco without spending some time on the events of November 27, 1978.
Most San Franciscans who were there or read a bit about the Moscone and Harvey Milk assassinations know that the SFPD base wasn’t exactly devastated by the actions of Dan White, the former supervisor and police officer. who killed Moscone and Du lait. White received much better treatment than the average prisoner after his confession, while many police officers practically celebrated what he had done. The POA, for its part, essentially supported its members’ views on the killings.
But that’s only part of the story as the POA’s resistance to integrating the force is also a central part of what happened that day.
In the days and weeks before White left the board of supervisors in early November, the board was preparing to vote on a federal consent decree that would have forced the San Francisco Police Department to integrate. The court officers had won their case, and the federal government was pushing the force to dramatically speed up its hiring of nonwhite police officers.
White represented the sixth vote against the consent decree, but if replaced by a Moscone appointee, the decree would be much more likely to pass. So when White resigned, the police and POA were among those pushing most enthusiastically to demand his job and not accept a response from Moscone. We all know what happened when White refused to accept Moscone’s decision not to reappoint him to the board.
Just as it is irresponsible to ignore the position of POA members in the face of these terrible events, it is also not fair to judge them on what was probably their worst moment.
The crime rate is falling
The high crime rates that so largely defined San Francisco in the 1970s continued into the 1990s, but by the end of the 1990s, something was starting to change. In cities across the country, including San Francisco, crime began to decline. It was one of the greatest domestic political achievements of the past three decades.
Credit for this is best shared between politicians of both parties as well as demographic shifts around aging and birth rates and other factors that were beyond the control of politicians and other leaders. However, in San Francisco, some credit should also go to the SFPD and POA.
Nevertheless, in the 1990s, the POA remained true to its reactionary views on policing. For example, in a lengthy 1995 apology for the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King that appeared in the POA Journal, Greg Meyer suggested that the problem was that King had not been subdued quickly enough. In a surreal passage, he wrote: “(S)if we can put a man on the moon and bring him safely back to Earth, why can’t we put a man on the ground and take him safely back to Earth? jail ?
Today, the POA is no longer the bastion of political power for straight, white men that it was in the 1970s and 1980s. The current POA president, Tracy McCray, is a black lesbian. His immediate predecessor, Tony Montoya, is a gay Latino. All of their predecessors were straight white men. San Francisco’s police force is also considerably more diverse than it was a generation or two ago.
Yet the Officers for Justice, which fought the POA throughout the 1970s, still exists and fills a need as a progressive alternative to the POA. He did not take a position on Boudin’s recall. Its goals, according to the Officers for Justice website, are to “continue the progressive struggle for equality and fairness within the San Francisco Police Department and the broader law enforcement community.”
Some would say that the POA remains a bulwark of conservatism in a progressive city. I think it’s more accurate to describe today’s POA as a constant reminder of San Francisco’s conservative underbelly.
The POA has consistently resisted efforts to reform the police, strengthen civilian oversight of the SFPD, and reconfigure the public security architecture. That hasn’t changed. And so the POA’s deep disdain for Boudin is about as surprising as a foggy night in the Sunset District.
Correction: An earlier version of this column misrepresented the San Francisco Association of Police Officers’ position on the recall of San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. The organization has not taken a position on the recall or given any money to the campaign.
Lincoln Mitchell has written numerous books and articles on The City and the Giants. Visit lincolnmitchell.com or follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell