SAN FRANCISCO’S POLICE COMMISSIONER MALIA COHEN SPEAKS

by JR Valrey

Former San Francisco Supervisor Malia Cohen has just been appointed to head the San Francisco Police Commission this month, by Mayor London Breed. This is a very critical time in the nation’s history, where relations between the Black and Brown community as well as the activist community, and the police are at all time lows.

Just in the last couple of weeks, San Leandro police officer Jason Fletcher became only the second officer in California, in a decade, to be indicted. He was charged with voluntary manslaughter for the killing of Steven Taylor, a Black mentally ill man who was murdered in less than 1 minute upon the arrival of Officer Fletcher, at a Wal-Mart in San Leandro, last April. Fletcher is being charged with voluntary manslaughter. The only other officer to be indicted within the last decade, in California, was Johannes Mehserle for the killing of Oscar Grant, in Oakland.

Also, on September 13th two Compton police officers, who are alleged to have possibly been affiliated with a police “gang” within the department, were murdered on camera, and the assassin escaped. Days later, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva publicly called out Los Angeles Lakers’ star Lebron James to match the over one hundred thousand dollars raised for the officers. Lebron has not responded.

The NBA has been hosting their playoff tournaments with the words “Black Lives Matter” on the court nightly, and the NFL has recently allowed its players to kneel during the anthem, as their season gets underway.

Tennis champion Naomi Osaka, also won the U.S. Open this month, while wearing face-masks with the names of Black people murdered by the police, on them. And in mid September, Breonna Taylor’s estate was granted $12 million as part of a wrongful death suit, by the city of Louisville, Kentucky for the March 13th police execution of Breonna Taylor, while officers Brett Hankinson, Myles Cosgrave, and Johnathan Mattingly are on administrative leave and have not been indicted on any charges for the unjustified home invasion and murder of Breonna Taylor.

In light of the Black community’s ongoing war against police executions, Police Commissioner Malia Cohen is coping with the COVID crisis and sheltering-in-place, after just having had a baby. I wanted to check in with her, to see what she thinks about her new job, in this new era.

JR Valrey: In these times of constant national rebellions against police executions of Black people, how do you see your role, especially considering that the police murders of Mario Woods, Kenneth Harding, Gus Rugley, Idris Stelley and others caused unrest in San Francisco?

Malia Cohen: I see my role as one who can demand transparency and change as we pursue justice. It is vital that all communities of color, particularly our African American communities, are fully informed regarding police reform. I want to bring to the Police Commission the same zeal and commitment that I brought to the creation of the Department of Police Accountability when I was on the Board of Supervisors. I understand just how critical my role is. I understand that there will be no true peace until there is true justice; and we don’t have to dread reading about another Black woman or man shot down for little or no cause, or subjected to humiliating stops by police anywhere in the United States.

JR Valrey: Mayor Breed has talked about defunding the police to the tune of millions a year, how will your newly appointed role complement this effort? How will this agenda be actively carried out?

Malia Cohen: Mayor Breed’s new budget includes redirecting $120 million over the next two years away from law enforcement agencies, and investing 60% of that money into mental health, wellness, and homelessness initiatives in the African American community, with 35% of that redirected money going to support economic opportunities, youth development, and education. Around 5% of that redirected money would be to develop a plan to have social workers perform some of the duties now performed by police officers. This includes responding to calls involving the homeless and the mentally ill. As a Police Commissioner, I will be very much involved in working on the plans to have social workers respond to non-criminal incidents. I look forward to working with all our communities to make these bold proposals a reality.

JR Valrey: What do you think that the most challenging aspect of this job will be? What do you look forward to?

Malia Cohen: I know that police reform is a marathon and not a  sprint. We cannot overturn the reality of our history going back decades, even back to 1619. But knowing our history, and the challenges we face, we have to keep building alliances, staying vigilant, and being very loud when we have to. I look forward to being a loud and a strong voice for justice.

JR Valrey: You recently worked for the state of California, what made you want to come back to get involved in local San Francisco politics? Is this appointment a step-down to your upward mobility in politics? If not, please explain. 

Malia Cohen: First of all, all public service is a privilege and requires focus and dedication. As a member of the Board of Equalization, my responsibilities included making sure that our $70 billion property tax system keeps generating the revenue we need, to fund our schools, and help our local government fund the health and safety needs of our communities. As a member of the Police Commission my responsibilities include making sure that police reform measures stay on track, and that the voices of our communities are heard. I see these roles as complementary. Both are important in making sure that we can build a better and more just City. In my mind, there is no up or down in politics, just moving forward to a better future. Being on the Police Commission helps me focus my energies in moving towards that better future.

JR Valrey: What is your mission, on the job as the head of the Police Commission?

Malia Cohen: As a member of the Police Commission, my mission is to make sure that everyone in the SFPD moves on track, on the road to reform. I want to use data and analysis to ensure transparency and accountability. As I said when I was confirmed by the Board of Supervisors, “The days of when law enforcement can just act as they want to are gone.” My mission will be to make sure that everyone understands that the world is changing and we won’t ever go back or tolerate the abuses of the past.

JR Valrey: How will you improve on the policies of the last Police Commission?

Malia Cohen: I want to serve as a bridge builder to bring together everyone in a movement for real changes. In this fight, there can be no “factions.” I want to make sure that each meeting is an opportunity for real positive dialogue, and for real concrete actions. I believe that each day provides an opportunity for real improvement, and I want to bring that attitude to the Commission.

JR Valrey: How could people keep up with your progress? How can they keep in touch with you?

Malia Cohen: My immediate personal progress involves very soon giving birth to our new daughter. You can follow that, and all my public service work on Twitter @MaliaCohen and on Facebook. My office phone number (working remotely now) is (415) 557-3000; and my email is MaliaCohen@boe.ca.gov.

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