Interviews

The Interview: Bill Scott Speaks Up

By Janet Reilly

San Francisco’s 43rd police chief, Bill Scott. (Spencer Brown)

With the country in the grip of twin crises — one public health, the other police brutality —San Francisco’s top cop shares his perspective.

If it weren’t for a persuasive cousin — an LAPD officer — visiting him as a young University of Alabama grad, Bill Scott may have never considered a career in law enforcement. Instead, he would have likely joined the military, following in his father’s footsteps. But, as we know, that was not to be. Prior to being sworn in as San Francisco’s 43rd police chief in January 2017, Chief Scott spent 27 years with the LAPD, rising to the rank of deputy chief. When tapped for the top SF job by then-Mayor Ed Lee, police reform was a key priority. Three years later, in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and frequent protests over police brutality across the country, reform is being demanded. And Chief Scott is listening.

On a recent afternoon, the chief and I met via Zoom. Our conversation ran the gamut from growing up in the Deep South, repairing trust with the community to building a 21st-century police department.

Meet Chief Bill Scott …

It’s been a tumultuous month or so. Personally and professionally,  how have you been holding up? Personally, I’m doing well. My family is my support system, and it’s tough on them too. So, a lot of family discussions about what’s going on. That part has been really nice because it brings us closer together. Professionally, this is unprecedented. With 30-plus years in this profession, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it quite as intense as it’s been the last few weeks.

You grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, in the aftermath of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four Black children in 1963. How did your experience growing up in the Deep South help form the person you are today? Well, it has a tremendous influence. My wife’s father was a school teacher at the time and three of those four little girls were his students. These were families that were very close to my wife’s family. So yeah, it is real to me — it’s not something that you just read about. The images that you see of the Birmingham police spraying firehoses on protesters, siccing dogs and all that stuff — the people protesting included my family members.

I grew up hearing about those things. So, respecting people’s First Amendment rights and their right to protest is near and dear to me. I take it seriously because I wouldn’t be sitting here if it weren’t for those type of actions to ensure civil rights for everyone.

You spent your career in Los Angeles and in San Francisco, which couldn’t be more different than Birmingham in the 1970s. Are there similarities between your experience growing up in Birmingham, and the experience of young people of color today? There are some common threads. Today, we’re talking about social justice, equal rights and equity. Those were the same issues back then. Growing up in a city that was beginning to come out of the civil rights movement, even though the schools weren’t legally segregated, they were segregated. I went to an elementary school that was probably 90 percent white when I got there. Within a couple of years, it was probably 90 percent Black, because everybody moved out. And with that, the budgets and the tax base were impacted. Unequal education is what I grew up with.I didn’t really realize it until I got to college and I was around students that had taken curriculums and courses that I hadn’t even been offered. When you’re living through it, unless somebody tells you how things are, you really don’t understand it. Some of the same issues still exist. I was telling my oldest son just the other day, “Look, I think your generation is better off than my generation. My generation is definitely better off than my parents’ generation. My parents’ generation is definitely better off than their parents’ generation.” There’s still a long, long way to go, but progress is happening.

Have you ever been stopped for being Black? And if so, what sticks with you about the experience? Well, you never really know if you’re stopped for being Black. You suspect, particularly when you don’t believe that you’ve done anything to deserve to be stopped. And yes, that has happened to me before, it’s happened to me since I was a police officer a couple of times. I’ve told this story about one time back in Alabama — I think I was about 19 years old, on my way back to school on a Sunday — I was stopped by an officer and everything that came out of his mouth was, “boy, boy, boy.” And in the South calling an adult a boy — it had a meaning. You were less than a man for sure. And less equal than the person that was talking to you. I never forgot that, I never forgot how it made me feel. That’s why it’s so important for me and our department to treat people with respect. It’s just a basic thing that we have to do. It’s basic humanity.

You were only two years into your career at the Los Angeles Police Department when the Rodney King incident happened. Can you draw parallels to what’s happening today? [The Rodney King incident] really changed policing. When the video went public, it became a worldwide event. But the difference is that Los Angeles didn’t erupt until after the first trial. I mean, I think the public was waiting to see what would happen, whether the officers would be held accountable, and when that didn’t happen, that’s when everything erupted. The difference now is the public didn’t wait to see what would happen. I mean, even though the Minneapolis police chief fired the four officers involved the very next day, the public didn’t wait. I think the patience of the public now is much shorter. Social media is so quick, these things tend to erupt much faster. Civil unrest in Minneapolis started the very next day. By Wednesday, it had started to spread across the country. By the following week, it was all across the world. The intensity of this movement — for police reform, for justice and social equity — I think is much more intense than it was in 92.

There’s been a lot of talk about “defunding the police.” What does that mean to you, and how do you think we should be investing taxpayer dollars in public safety in 2020? I think it means different things to different people. I don’t advocate for stripping any department of its entire budget for policing the city. I do, however, agree that we have to reimagine what public safety is about. I mean, homelessness is not a criminal issue at all. If there’s criminal activity occurring within the homeless population, that’s a different story. But I think that social issues that can be better addressed by other entities should be.That’s just one example. [We get] a lot of the calls regarding people that are in mental crisis. Maybe clinicians are better suited when there’s no crime and no threat to anybody’s safety. So, I’m a proponent of reallocating funding to make those things happen. I think it is good for our society and good for the health of a community. I don’t advocate taking away the budget from the police department to the point that we can’t provide the basic services that the public expects us to provide. Hundreds of thousands of people call 911 every year in this city. Who’s going to come if we don’t?

What’s the biggest challenge you have right now? There are so many things happening in terms of reform, and it’s coming from a lot of different places. We have to really be thoughtful about whatever direction we’re going to go. The good thing for SFPDis that we had already embarked on a reform initiative right beforeI got here. So, what a lot of other departments are having to do, we’ve already started down that road and made some progress. You have to be really thoughtful, and we do really have to work with our communities to really determine what people think. What do they want to see? What’s reasonable and what’s not?

Chief Scott as an LAPD rookie in 1990. Just two years later, the city of Los Angeles erupted following the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King.

 

Do you feel like police unions often put up obstacles to change? And if that’s the case, what can be done? I think there’s some truth to that, definitely. And not just here, but in many cities. The SFPOA recently put out a joint statement with the San Jose and LAPD police unions [saying] they’re going to embrace reform, and I’ll have to take them for their word on that. The department, led by me, is  saying, “We recognize the change has to happen.” So hopefully the meeting of the minds here will equal progress. Not just progress but quick progress.And that’s been the issue. Our reform has been at a slower pace than any of us would like. It gets frustrating at times. Some of that is due to these drawn-out meet-confer processes, where it takes us a year or two years to get a policy passed. I think we’re over the hump on that now. I think you’re going to see a lot quicker pace of reform here in San Francisco.

How do you discipline officers at the SFPD who use excessive force? By charter, I only have the authority to discipline up to a 10-day suspension. If I recommend anything above a 10-day suspension, I have to send it to the police commission. The officers end up in an evidentiary hearing, which is like a minitrial that commission puts on. And if the officer is found guilty, discipline occurs from there. So, only the commission here can terminate or give a suspension of 11 days or more. We have to have due process. One of the things that we saw in Minneapolis, and even in Atlanta with those incidents, is that the officers were terminated the very next day.

In San Francisco we don’t have the ability to do that. It’s our process by charter, and it will take a charter change to change that. Right now, there’s a lot of talk all over the country about discipline and accountability and what needs to happen, but we have a process that we have to respect. And it’s really important that the public understands our process.

If there were two to three changes you could implement today, regardless of charters or constraints that you have, what would they be? I think more could be done for transparency purposes, and that’s going to take changes in state legislation. But I do think transparency is really important to get to the accountability that the public really wants to see in law enforcement right now.

The other thing is training. It’s a bigger issue than just saying, “We’re going to train.” It’s a matter of logistics as well, because when officers are training, they’re not in the streets and they’re not investigating cases. Look at other industries —sports, technology, education — the professionals in those industries are constantly educating themselves. We’d like to do a lot more training than we’re able to, just because of logistics. We have certain training that is mandated. We have other training that we’d like to implement, but we can’t because if we do, we won’t have enough officers on the streets.

How do we build rebuild trust between the community and the police department? The first step is acknowledging our mistakes. I think we have to acknowledge that there is a history of policing in this country that has had shortcomings and some serious flaws. That’s the first step. Once you acknowledge that, then people want to see real change. It takes time, but people have to see progress.

Do you feel a special responsibility as a Black police chief at this time in our country? In a way, yes. I’m grateful and I feel blessed that I have an opportunity to be in a leadership position right now. I have a lot of counterparts and colleagues who aren’t African American, who are good people with good ideas and good thoughts. But if you’re not Black, you don’t know what it is to be and live in this country as a Black man. And I think having that perspective at the table, particularly right now, means something. The fact that I can bring that perspective into these conversations is really important right now.

Do you ever feel torn in two directions? One as a police chief, and two as a Black man? I wouldn’t say torn. What I would say is that it adds another degree of pressure to try to do some good and make a difference. There are people that might not be aware of what it feels like to be stopped, believing that you were stopped because you’re a certain race or skin color. And to be able to bring that perspective is important. That’s what makes diversity a good thing for our country, and for any organization.

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