Members of the San Francisco chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America were incredibly saddened to learn of the San Francisco Police Department’s murder of Keita O’Neil last month. We offer our condolences to his family and friends, recognizing this is a meager offering at such a time. Some of our members attended the community meeting the SFPD held in the Bayview on Thursday, December 7th, and witnessed first-hand the anguish of Keita’s family, friends and community as the video of the killing was played for the first time. The video is horrifying: Officer Christopher Samayoa pulls his gun as his cruiser speeds toward a crashed van, and shoots Keita immediately, not even pausing to open his car door. Keita was unarmed and appeared to be running away.
We are saddened, but not surprised. The San Francisco Police Department has a horrific practice of shooting and killing people, mostly people of color, who pose little to no threat. This practice is intertwined with a culture of anti-black racism, systemic and unabashed, that infuses the department. The racism and the killings continue because there has been, and continues to be, no accountability for either. Officers who shot and killed Mario Woods (who also posed no threat) are still on the force. Most of the officers who sent heinous text messages full of racist and homophobic slurs are still on the force. Attempts by officers to expose racist statements and admissions of racist violence have been met with retaliation by the powerful, insular and reactionary Police Officers Association. Even the District Attorney, former SFPD Chief George Gascon, has admitted that: “There’s a culture that has allowed [racists] to thrive and survive and even promote within that environment.”
San Francisco’s leaders’ response to systemic racism and violence has been anemic at best. In the wake of Keita’s murder we see a familiar pattern: city officials are already circling the wagons, with City Attorney Dennis Herrera’s office releasing a statement reading in part: “What we do know is that at the time of the incident . . . the decedent was leading the police on a high-speed chase.” Blaming Keita for his own execution is a familiar tactic meant to reassure San Franciscans that Keita was a “bad guy” who deserved his fate. Spinning this narrative allows city officials to prepare residents for a lack of consequences. Officer Samayoa is unlikely to be fired. Indeed he is unlikely to face any real consequences at all. Despite receiving $1.8 million dollars to investigate and prosecute police killings, District Attorney Gascon has not prosecuted a single shooting. We do not expect him to begin with Keita’s killer.
In the wake of Keita’s killing there are likely to be calls for “reform.” In practice, this will mean throwing more money toward new commissions or study groups to come up with new policies and new training. New policies aren’t the answer. San Francisco already has policies prohibiting officers from shooting from a moving vehicle, shooting unarmed suspects, and leaving their body cameras off until after they shoot someone. SFPD has committed to “implicit bias” training, but studies show such training is largely ineffective; the department’s voluntary anti-racism pledge is even less effective. The most damning indictment of SFPD’s supposed reform process lies in the identity of the killer himself. Only four days removed from the academy, Officer Samayoa had the benefit of the most up to date training programs. Officer Samayoa is not a “rogue cop,” he is a product of the supposedly reformed SFPD system.
After every police killing, the people of San Francisco fork over more money to the police department for new policies, new training, and new equipment. But the killings haven’t stopped, and the racism hasn’t abated. The SFPD continues to use Black San Francisco neighborhoods like the Bayview as deadly training grounds for rookie cops. SFPD officers continue to brazenly express racist sentiments without fear of censure.
It is long past time for the city to demand true accountability, and that starts with the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and acting Mayor London Breed. Our elected supervisors control the purse strings. The only way the SFPD will truly begin to change its culture and its behavior is if it is actually held accountable, and that means real consequences, not empty promise of reform. Later this year the Mayor will sit down and negotiate salaries and budgets. Most departments, including many social services, are expected to take budget cuts and to impose hiring freezes. The SFPD, however, is anticipating a budget increase, including funding for a new multi-million dollar TASER weapons program. The Mayor and the Supervisors have a choice: they can cement the status quo by handing the SFPD an even larger share of our city budget in the wake of Keita’s killing, thus tacitly encouraging the racism and warrior mentality that led to his death, or they can commit to freezing funding and hiring until the department demonstrates a commitment to change through actions, rather than words. Firing Samayoa would be a start, but much more is needed.
-DSA SF Justice Committee