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Four San Francisco Cops Talk About the Problems Plaguing Their Department

Five shootings, a text scandal, a hunger strike, and now a new boss.

Editor’s Note: On May 25, The Marshall Project published excerpts from interviews with four San Francisco police officers. One of the officers complained that his excerpts left out significant nuances and in some places skewed his remarks. A review of the transcript indicates that the complaints were justified. In place of the excerpts, we are publishing extended answers.

On March 12, 2014, Alejandro Nieto, a 28-year-old Hispanic male who worked as a security guard, was shot 14 times by members of the San Francisco Police Department. The officers were responding to call citing a man with a gun. But Nieto only had a Taser. The shooting, and the resulting investigation that cleared the officers of wrongdoing, sparked outrage throughout the city. There have since been four other police-involved shootings of people of color, a 17-day hunger strike by five protesters calling for the resignation of the police chief, and a scandal involving racist and homophobic texts sent to and from a member of the police force.

The most recent shooting, on May 19 — in which a police officer fatally shot a young black woman, Jessica Williams, who was allegedly driving a stolen car — forced the resignation of Police Chief Greg Suhr. Suhr’s interim replacement, Toney Chaplin, a 26-year veteran of the force, has promised sweeping reforms, including continuing the former chief’s push to change use-of-force policies.

Former San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr in April.

San Francisco is about 42 percent white, 33 percent Asian, 15 percent Latino, and 6 percent black, according to 2010 census data. The police department declined to provide data on the diversity of its force.

To find out how it feels to be a member of the SFPD right now, we spoke separately with Sergeant Joshua Kumli, a Caucasian, 15-year veteran of the force; Sergeant Lloyd Martin, an African-American who has been on the force for 22 years. We also spoke during a ride-along with Officer Michael Scott, an African-American, two-year veteran of the force and his partner, Officer Marcus Wells, who is half black, half Native American, and has been on the force for three years.

In short: They all feel under attack.

I’m interested in the perception that police should be out there changing the culture of the neighborhoods they police. I’m not sure if that’s your job, but you have a good assessment of the problems at least.

Sergeant Joshua Kumli: As soon as people are forced with change, they become a pincushion, all these barbs pointing out and away. You know, you can’t change yourself unless you’re willing to change and you recognize you have a problem. So to say that any one group can change everything, that is completely unrealistic. Changing one little part of the circumstances can’t change the overall problem. I can tell you that what we’ve been doing for the last 60 or 70 years is not the answer because it hasn’t changed or it’s gotten worse. I think in some ways, some police officers have a good pulse on what’s going on out there. It’s interesting, there are some very outspoken community advocates that don’t really want to see things in their family. They want to point fingers away from them. Everyone wants to point fingers away from themselves.

You know, it’s the same thing with the police. Police departments are oftentimes resistant to change. When someone points a finger at a police agency, a lot of times they try to point fingers back. Everyone pointing fingers away but no one is saying, “This is what I can do to change it. This is what I can do to help.”

Do you think there can be some things changed within the SFPD culture that can help move things forward?

Kumli: You know, it’s interesting, It’s hard. Tying a change in police culture to several officer-involved shootings (OIS’s) is not really fair. And it’s really difficult to critique OIS’s especially with the media and public, who, a lot of times, have no understanding of what the officers were faced with, what the law is, or what the standard for officers is in their decisionmaking. We are promptly judged in hindsight by people who have little-to-no expertise in what we are allowed to do.

What is your perception of the most recent officer-involved shootings?

Sergeant Lloyd Martin: Sometimes, unfortunately in law enforcement, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Community leaders and politicians want us to get inside somebody’s head in minutes or seconds, where it takes psychiatrists months or even years to do so. They don’t understand that we have to make a split-second decision, because if we make the wrong decision, someone else can get hurt including the officer himself. There’s no formula, every situation is different. It can go from a guy dropping the gun to a guy refusing to drop the gun or the knife or the blade.

You work out of the same station that responded to the shooting of Alejandro Nieto. How does something like that effect an officer? How does it affect their families and day-to-day lives?

Kumli: It affects individuals differently depending on the psychological makeup. Obviously, all of those officers were extremely worried and stressed out going through a jury trial for something that they did at work. Where they went from a situation of feeling, perceiving, and believing that someone was pointing a firearm at them and that their lives were on the line, to being on a jury trial where they were being accused of wrongdoing. So just think of the emotional roller-coaster of that. Having to shoot someone, and ultimately that person ends up dying. I don’t know if you’ve ever been in a really bad situation, but when you get out of it, it feels good to have survived it. And then they get turned upside down being accused of wrongdoing and going through this court process.

Is it viewed as ineffective or not possible to shoot someone in the leg?

Kumli: It’s ineffective. It’s unreasonable. It defies physics really. Have you ever shot at a moving target? It’s hard. But a lot of things affect that. Throw in the fact that the target is moving and that the target has something that’s lethal to you. Think about how that changes your body. The stress that puts your body under. Feasibility is virtually non-existent, and that’s why we are trained to shoot center mass — the largest area of the target that’s presented to you. Even if you are really good with a gun and even if you’re able to control the stress reactions that are happening to your body, you’re still not in control of how someone is moving. Another thing, too, is that people can be shot and still be a major threat to you.

Why do cops shoot so many times?

Martin: Well, when I first started in law enforcement, we were taught the failure drill. Two to the body and one to the head. Unlike what you see on TV, sometimes people just do not fall. Your mindset is not to kill these people. It’s, “I want the aggression to stop.”

What do you make of Chief Greg Suhr’s resignation?

Officer Marcus Wells: In all major organizations, changes need to happen, and you change it up every now and then. But to change it up over a political outcry? I don’t like that. It goes against the penal code and it goes against what were trained. And it’s a big hit. I don’t feel like this city has us in its best interests at all.

Kumli: Yeah, Chief Suhr got a bum deal. Here’s a guy who’s been implementing more change than our department has seen in years. And then he gets removed for something that’s really out of his control. So now we kind of have to re-group. It’s not completely starting over, but you had someone at the helm of the ship who had a focus to make change and who was pushing reforms through and wanted to make change. And now he’s gone, so the changes Suhr was making may slow because of that. It’s kind of ironic but it seems like people who are really pushing and wanting change and are vocally out there wanting the chief’s head have probably shot themselves in the foot unintentionally. They’ve probably slowed the change that’s actually occurring, which is very bizarre.

Do you believe the appointment of his replacement, Toney Chaplin, an African-American, was motivated by race?

Officer Michael Scott: I don’t know. I heard Chaplin was a great cop before he got promoted. But it kinda looks like they appointed him because of his race, too. Especially when the day of the announcement that he was the new chief, a news outlet placed the wrong picture of the new chief. The news put up a picture Deputy Chief Mikail Ali, another black chief. So that kind of looks bad.

Wells: Absolutely I think it was race. You know, the black community wants black police officers even though we get called Uncle Tom working for the white man. That’s just what they want. The Latino community whats Hispanic officers who speak Spanish. The gay community wants gay police officers. It just goes full circle.

Officers Scott and Wells felt that the appointment of Chief Chaplin was motivated by race.

Kumli: Yeah, not to take anything from him. He’s a great guy and a hard worker and had a fantastic career, and he has always been working in communities where there’s a lot of problems and a lot of violence. And he’s smart. He’s competent. But it really does feel that way to a lot of us. That race was a factor. You see that in a lot of big cities where some incident occurs and it goes, “Off with the chief’s head, and bring in a black chief.” I mean, it just seems to me that the focus and priority shouldn’t be race-based; it should be competency based. Someone who’s gonna do the right thing and make the right changes. It’s a hard pill to swallow.

From left: San Francisco Police Sgt. Lloyd Martin, Officer Marcus Wells, Officer Michael Scott, and Sgt. Joshua Kumli.

In the wake of the Nieto shooting, a lot of people, including those from the District Attorney’s Blue Ribbon Commision on policing, said that the police investigations are biased. Are you in support of independent investigations for police killings?

Kumli: Every time officers use lethal force, it’s going to be scrutinized. It’s going to be critiqued. There’s gonna be people who say this was totally justified. They did nothing wrong. There’s gonna be people who say absolutely horrible. This is murder. They should be fired. If some member of your family was shot by police officers, you’re going to be upset about them being shot. You’re going to be upset about the loss of your loved one. You’re going to question the loss of your loved one and if it was justified. You’re gonna want answers. You’re gonna want an impartial investigation and rightfully so. And anytime officers use lethal force, an investigation should be done. It should be done. If they did it by a complete outside agency, that’s possibly better. Obviously, our agency has to investigate it because we have internal things that we need to find out in terms of policy violations, policy failures. So we have to be involved within that process.

I don’t see a problem with [independent investigations]. You look at all the facts of a shooting and what the officers saw and perceived and you know what the standard of judgement is, and if judges and juries find that what they did was reasonable, there are still going to be people who say that wasn’t reasonable. You cannot avoid that.

In response to the text scandal, what do you think about racism on the force? Do you think the SFPD is racist?

Martin: No. Sometimes officers joke around with each other, and it’s all in good fun and to release steam. But as far at someone who’s outright bigoted at this station? No. And I don’t know the texts, who they were texting, or if it was in a joking manner. Because I’ve heard black officers make fun of black officers and Asian make fun of Asian and Hispanics make fun of each other. All of them are blowing off steam. It’s all in good fun.

But you never hear about people joking around in a racist way about people they’re policing?

Martin: No, not really. If they’re gonna joke around, it’s with themselves. I haven’t heard it, and I wouldn’t stand for it. I would put them in check right then and there. But sometimes they’re in their locker room or in a group amongst themselves and they’re just being guys. I know people don’t want to hear that, but cops are human and it’s mostly done in a loving fashion. It doesn’t bother me. I’m the first openly black gay male in the department. When I was in narcotics, people made jokes. I didn’t take it personally. I knew they had my back, and they turned out to be some of the closest friends I have on the department.

How do you think issues of race and policing should be addressed?

Wells: The racial biases people put on us, they are thwarted by what I see on a daily basis. I’ll tell you, this entire year, I haven’t arrested one white person, not one. Why? Because there hadn’t been an instance where a white person has committed a crime. They’ve all been African-American or Latino. Yet you want me to just let them slide? Because that’s how you feel how it should be? Okay. So the suspect who beat up a the lady up or the person who robbed someone at gunpoint and said, “Gimme your shit or you gonna die” — I should just let them slide because of their race?

Some, including members of the San Francisco Police Commission and the former chief, want officers to wear body cameras and carry Tasers. Do you think that would make a difference? Relying on less lethal force and having more transparency?

Wells: The weight of my current uniform is already 30 pounds. I’ve ran after multiple subjects and this right here is a daunting task. Imagine running with that extra weight on you. Tasers will help, but I see a backlash coming from the mental-health community as well as the health community in general. A lot of people have heart complications that I don’t know of. When I hit you with a Taser and the electricity goes through you, shocking your system, what is going to happen? I don’t know. Obviously, I haven’t been trained, but are they going to hang us out to dry for that? With body cameras, I don’t care. I don’t do anything wrong, so I don’t care.

Martin: I’m all for body cameras. The officers I supervise have nothing to hide. They are top-notch guys, and I trust they will answer a call, no problem. And not only that, but they’re compassionate guys about what they do and they actually enjoy and work with the community. I think Tasers are long overdue. Yes. You limit us by not giving us Tasers. I hear a lot that Tasers will kill people. Well guess what? So will hot lead coming out your gun. Not only that, but the metal baton can kill if you strike someone. I think the Taser is more humane. You don’t have to worry about the officer getting in a struggle with the guy and the guy getting hurt in that struggle.

I think people who say we don’t need another potentially lethal tool are out of their minds. They don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s nobody who I know who comes to work and says, “I want to shoot someone.” We’re trained to deescalate situations, but there’s only so much deescalation you can do.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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