Policing the Police
Joyce Hicks '74 is busy restoring faith in one of the nation's strongest civilian oversight agencies.
Story by Lisa O'Neill Hill / Photos by Mike Kepka
Against the backdrop of a $229 million budget deficit, the newcomer, the change agent, the one charged with unearthing the truth in disputes between police and the people they are sworn to protect, is asking for
Like all other department heads in San Francisco, Joyce Hicks ’74, the new executive director of the city’s Office of Citizen Complaints, has been ordered to slash her budget by 8 percent. Yet on this February evening, in the grandeur of the Beaux Arts City Hall, Hicks is explaining why she needs at least $750,000 more. Rescuing the office from crisis is going to take money for extra investigators and expanded training.
The seven members of the Police Commission, which has oversight of Hicks’ office, are impressed. Commission President Theresa Sparks calls the presentation extraordinary. Recognizing the large task in front of Hicks, others on the commission note her proposed fixes are complete and reasonable.
For now, it’s a love fest. City officials are looking to the seasoned administrator and attorney to restore confidence in the Office of Citizen Complaints, the agency charged with making policy recommendations and investigating citizen complaints filed against San Francisco police officers.
A scathing audit last year criticized the office for weak case management and myriad internal issues, including failure to complete 53 percent of its investigations within the mandated nine-month deadline. Mayor Gavin Newsom appointed Hicks to the position in October after the previous director resigned, citing health issues.
Hicks is at the helm of what experts call one of the most powerful civilian police oversight bodies in the country. The San Francisco Police Department does not have an internal affairs unit. Whenever a citizen accuses an officer of misconduct, Hicks’ civilian investigators—none of whom have been San Francisco police officers—look into the accusations, interviewing the complainant, the officer and witnesses and gleaning information from police reports and radio transmissions.
Her job is a balancing act that requires her to consider the rights of the citizen, the rights of the police officer and the rights of the community at large to know what is happening in a department that, for good reason, operates covertly.
“I think no matter what the form of civilian oversight is that there is a natural tension between the police union and the civilian oversight entity because the argument is often made by police unions that civilians don’t understand the work of the officers and therefore they cannot deem whether officers are in or out of policy,” Hicks says.
Hicks doesn’t accept that. Police have a tremendous amount of power and the public is entitled to oversight by an independent body, she says. San Francisco demanded that. In 1982, San Franciscans voted to create the Office of Citizen Complaints. “We as civilians look at things through a different lens,” she says.
Her office’s decisions are based on a preponderance of the evidence, the standard used in civil cases. If her investigators sustain a complaint, Hicks sends a report to Police Chief Heather Fong, who can hold a disciplinary hearing. If the chief does not agree misconduct occurred, Hicks also has the discretion to forward a complaint to the Police Commission.
Hicks already has built bridges by arranging meetings with the police union, says Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the 2,000-plus-member San Francisco Police Officers Association. The union accepted long ago the reality of civilian oversight, he says. But officers were unhappy with how long it took to investigate cases—a situation Hicks aims to fix.
She describes herself as persistent, compassionate and fair. She also knows what she wants and goes after it: “I move quickly and I move decisively.”
Her father taught her that. Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Hicks grew up on military bases in Nebraska, Texas, and Lompoc, California. Her father was a first lieutenant among the now-famous Tuskegee Airmen. When the war ended, he was honorably discharged. He later tried to get back into the military but was unsuccessful in returning as an officer because he had protested the mistreatment of black officers when the Army Air Corps integrated.
By the time Hicks was in fifth grade, the family was living in. “I was told I couldn’t go to the school in my neighborhood, that my mother or father would have to drive me back onto the base,” she says. Her father refused, citing
Brown v. Board of Education, the decision that stated that separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. For about a week, the Air Force sent a chauffeur to drive Hicks to school until the district allowed her to attend the one closest to her home.
She’s proud of her father for standing up for what was right. She has tried to do the same in her own life and career. Says Hicks: “This job is really just a reflection of my beliefs: when people believe they have been wronged by individuals who have an incredible amount of power over them, they need an avenue where they can be heard, where their complaints can be investigated or in certain cases, mediated, and if misconduct occurred, appropriate discipline be applied.”
Hicks graduated from Pomona with a degree in government and obtained her law degree from UC Berkeley, where she met her husband, attorney Eric Behrens. After Berkeley, Hicks went to work for the Oakland City Attorney’s Office, later moving into the role of deputy executive director of the Community and Economic Development Agency. She held that post until then-Mayor Jerry Brown appointed her executive director of the Oakland Citizens’ Police Review Board in 2003.
“He saw me as the fix-it person,” she says. “They needed my management skills.”
Hicks found herself in a difficult situation when she took over the review board in Oakland, says Pierce Murphy, past president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement. Police in the city, also subjected to internal affairs investigations, thought the oversight was redundant. Hicks says she worked hard to build relationships with community groups, police administrators and union officials. She also improved the caliber of investigations and focused on complaints that raised policy issues, such as pursuits and strip searches.
“She’s certainly got a track record of being able to walk into a situation where there are extreme challenges and make it work and make people, as much as they can given the constraints of the system, work together,” Murphy says.
She will need all those skills in San Francisco, where the number of cases her investigators handle is twice the national average. With only 35 employees and 18 line investigators, Hicks says she could lose four investigator positions; by late March, the budget deficit had ballooned to more than $300 million.
Completing investigations on time hinges on expanding her staff, not cutting it. But her goal of restoring faith in the OCC does not rest on money. She says she aims to increase confidence by being a strong leader, making good on her word and conveying her devotion to the mission of the office.
She hasn’t been sleeping much since her first day on the San Francisco job in late November. Too much to do. But she’s enjoying her work; she likes finding solutions to problems.
“My father has also taught me that one can keep reinventing oneself,” she says, noting that after the military he went on to teach in high schools and prisons and earn his master’s. “He’s taught me that life is one big adventure and the more you keep yourself open to new opportunities, the more will come your way.”
Rights Versus Oversight
Most major cities, including Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Los Angeles have some form of civilian oversight of police, although the forms and degree of power differ. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, for example, established an Office of Independent Review, run by a former federal prosecutor, to audit internal affairs investigations. Upwards of 180 cities across the country have instituted civilian oversight, says Pierce Murphy, past president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
But for Joyce Hicks and others involved in civilian oversight in California, the job of policing the police has become more challenging since
Copley Press v. San Diego, an August 2006 state Supreme Court decision that has prevented civilian oversight agencies from holding disciplinary hearings in public and barred public access to police complaints.
Add to that the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, which affords officers in California and other states certain protections while they are being investigated, and civilian oversight becomes even trickier. The statute requires that agencies investigating peace officers must complete their inquiries and notify the officer of proposed discipline within a year.
“The one thing underlying all of this business of civilian oversight is the current political landscape. California is now among the most secretive states in the country” when it comes to public dissemination of information about police misconduct, says Mark Schlosberg, police practices policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union’s Northern California chapter.
Police unions, meanwhile, make the case that complaints and disciplinary hearings should be treated as confidential personnel matters. “We need to be able to protect the safety as well as the privacy of our officers and their families,” read a statement from the Los Angeles Police Protective League after the
Copley Press ruling.