Interim San Francisco D.A. Suzy Loftus is Running for Office as a Reformer. But Critics Say She Didn’t Do Enough to Reform the SFPD.
Loftus led the San Francisco Police Commission through a bloody and turbulent era.
Protesters gathered recently outside a campaign event for San Francisco district attorney candidate Suzy Loftus, holding signs with photographs of people killed by police while Loftus served as president of the San Francisco Police Commission. There were 15 fatal police shootings during that era, according to SFPD data, 10 of which involved people of color.
“Suzy Loftus has blood on her hands,” read one of the signs. Other signs highlighted her relationship with former police Chief Greg Suhr, who was on the host committee for the event. Ed Lee, then mayor, asked Suhr to resign in 2016 after the string of police shootings and a scandal over racist and homophobic text messages sent by police. Activists have condemned Loftus’s association with him and his support of her candidacy.
“He’s the epitome of what we don’t want law enforcement to be,” said Cat Brooks, executive director of Justice Teams Network, an anti-police-violence advocacy group. “There is no way that she does not know that. So that means she knows how the community feels about it and doesn’t care.”
Brooks supports one of Loftus’s opponents, public defender Chesa Boudin, who is also backed by Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx. Loftus has her own prominent endorsements, including that of Mayor London Breed. On Friday, a day after the early resignation of District Attorney George Gascón, Breed named Loftus interim district attorney, despite criticism that it could prejudice voters.
Loftus brushed off concerns about Suhr’s support. “My record on police reform is unassailable,” she told The Appeal via email. “I won’t allow my opponents to use Greg Suhr as a tool to divide us. San Franciscans are tired of the ‘us versus them’ rhetoric.”
Loftus, who served as policy chief for U.S. Senator Kamala Harris when she was San Francisco DA, has promised that, if elected, police officers will be independently investigated and held accountable for misconduct. She told The Appeal that as president of the police commission from 2012 to 2016, she “oversaw the termination of more officers accused of serious misconduct than ever before.” Five officers were terminated and 12 received the penalty of “termination held in abeyance,” according to police commission disciplinary reports. None of the officers were terminated for use of force incidents, according to the reports.
Advocates say Loftus could have taken a bolder stance against police violence and the overpolicing of people of color.
“If we’re talking about ending mass incarceration, the DAs and the prosecutors are where the power lies,” said Brooks. “It’s really, really important who we have in those seats.”
In 2015, Mario Woods, 26, had a knife at his side and his back to a wall when, videos show, about nine police officers surrounded him in a semicircle. They yelled for him to drop the knife, and shot him with bean bag rounds and rubber bullets. Woods began to walk away and five officers started shooting with their rifles, hitting him 20 times.
Suhr defended the officers. “It’s a tragic loss anytime somebody dies,” he said at the time, according to SFGate.com. “We never want to do that. But this is all they could do. I really don’t know how much more you can make it plain to a wanted felon that he should drop the knife.”
Woods’s death sparked widespread demonstrations. A police department internal investigation cleared the officers of any wrongdoing and Gascón did not charge them. Woods’s mother filed a wrongful death suit, which the city settled this year for $400,000.
After Woods’s death, Suhr and Loftus, then president of the police commission, co-wrote a letter to then-Mayor Lee about their plans to change departmental policies. But nowhere in the letter did they discuss immediate discipline or termination for officers who use excessive force.
“Immediately following the Mario Woods incident,” they wrote, the commission, police department, and others, had been “collaborating on a plan to fundamentally re-engineer the way police officers use force.”
Among other changes, the department’s new use-of-force policy prioritized de-escalation, barred the use of certain types of control holds, and prohibited police from shooting at moving vehicles in almost all circumstances. “We changed the policy to reflect a community standard that required that minimal force be used,” Loftus said in an email, adding that use of force has declined by 30 percent since it was adopted.
But John Crew, former police practices project director with the ACLU of Northern California, says officers had already been ordered to use de-escalation techniques in a departmental bulletin issued by Suhr in April 2015. It required “officers to create time, distance, and establish a rapport with people in crisis who are only a danger to themselves.” Lack of enforcement, not lack of policy, led to Woods’s death, said Crew.
“If officers are not following the policy, they need to be fired or this will happen again,” Crew said. “What happened post-Mario Woods was an emphasis completely on changing the policy and never confronting the reality that it was already against the policy.”
When asked by The Appeal why she didn’t publicly call for the firing of officers involved in fatal shootings or criminal charges against them, Loftus said it would have been inappropriate.
“As a police commissioner, you serve in a quasi judicial role and conduct evidentiary hearings in discipline matters,” she said in an email. “As a result, you must remain neutral regarding cases that could come before you and refrain from making comments on the specifics of the cases.”
Yet, advocates say, there were other opportunities to intervene. In 2016, state Senator Mark Leno proposed a police transparency bill, which Lofus took no position on. His bill allowed for public access to certain records related to police use of force and misconduct. DA Gascón and Breed, who was then president of the Board of Supervisors, supported Leno’s bill, which died in committee.
“Any claim during her DA campaign now suggesting she wants to bring more transparency to the SF criminal justice system has to be considered in light of her failure to actually back greater transparency in 2016 when that Leno bill was pending,” Crew wrote in an email to The Appeal.
In February 2016, the mayor’s office and police department announced a partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice’s COPS (Community Oriented Policing Services) Office, which studies police departments and recommends reforms. The more than 400-page study of the San Francisco Police Department was published in October 2016. Loftus left the police commission in January 2017, and joined the sheriff’s department as assistant chief counsel, her current role.
“We found a department with concerning deficiencies in every operational area assessed: use of force; bias; community policing practices; accountability measures; and recruitment, hiring, and promotion practices,” according to the report.
As of May, the police department had carried out fewer than a quarter of the reforms, out of more than 200 recommendations, according to an evaluation released as part of the agreement between the city and the California Department of Justice.
“I hope to see the fulfillment of each of the recommendations,” Loftus told The Appeal by email. “Given the DOJ’s exit from the process, it is up to SFPD, the Commission, the Board of Supervisors, and the Mayor to ensure the reforms are fully implemented.”
Even Loftus’s critics acknowledge that she had tried to improve the department. But, they say, her efforts ultimately fell short.
“If you’re looking at the angle compared to prior police commissioners, at least she led some reforms,” said Crew. “Unfortunately, compared to what was really needed and the scope of what was needed, it was far too little, far too late.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated with the news of Loftus’s appointment to interim San Francisco D.A.