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Civil Rights

Lawsuits Against San Fran Police Department Allege Discrimination

— May 18, 2020

San Francisco police have long claimed discrimination in promotion process.

San Francisco police officers have been trying to shed light on what they feel are discriminating practices within the department based on age, gender, and race.  In a class-action age-bias lawsuit, the city of San Francisco offered 29 officers a settlement totaling $400,000.  Upon issuing the settlement, a judge also asked each officer individually whether they agreed to be bound by the majority opinion, and each signed in agreement.  However, it now looks like the plaintiffs may be seeking a higher payout.  A state appeals court decided the officers may not be bound to the original terms, because the trial judge failed to ask whether they understood and agreed to the settlement during the questioning.

The original lawsuit was filed by San Francisco police officers over 40 years of age who qualified for consideration for promotion to Assistant Inspector based on a 1998 exam.  The city’s promotion procedures were developed as part of the passing of a 1979 consent decree that settled a discrimination lawsuit filed by Officers for Justice back in 1973.  The consent decree terminated in 1998, and the subsequent lawsuit claimed, “it is no longer a proper rationale for race-conscious promotions made under a banding scheme.”

Lawsuits Against San Fran Police Department Allege Discrimination
Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

The plaintiffs claimed a department policy “abandoning that exam as the basis for certain assignments constituted age discrimination on the basis of disparate impact.”  A federal appeals court then found “the trial court’s denial of the certification of a class in the lawsuit amounted to an abuse of discretion.”  In 2019, a dozen white male officers sued the San Francisco challenging the test-scoring method used by the city and alleging discrimination in hiring and promotions.

“The city, to this day, has a long-standing practice and custom of discriminating against white males in SFPD promotions to the rank of sergeant, lieutenant and captain,” said M. Greg Mullanax, the officers’ attorney.  He claimed further, in 2016, “the department promoted three black sergeants, even though their scores were lower than those of 11 white candidates who were denied promotions.”

Because San Francisco uses the “banding of test results to increase the number of women and minority candidates considered for promotion,” the case alleged, “instead of offering a promotion to the highest scorer on the test, the banding system allows all of the candidates who scored within a particular range or band to be treated equally in promotion decisions.”  Police department promotions are then based only on four criteria: “good conduct; job performance; education, training and experience; and the department’s affirmative-action goals.”  It is the affirmative action portion that’s at the center of the disputes.

John Cote, a spokesperson for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, insists, “The SFPD uses lawful, merit-based, competitive civil service examinations in making promotions.  This system is enshrined in the city’s charter and civil service rules.  It’s designed to provide qualified individuals with the chance for advancement while ensuring fair treatment without regard to race, gender, religion, age or other status. We will review this lawsuit and address it in court.”


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