Cyclist’s Conflict with SFPD Could Take Nine Months or More to Resolve

Adrienne_Johnson_bike.jpgAdrienne Johnson riding beside the unmarked police car whose driver she says threatened her. Photo taken by Johnson's husband, who was trailing behind her with her son.

As happens at some point to most people who ride a bike in San Francisco, Adrienne Johnson had a scary brush with an irate motorist, though her story took on much darker implications when she found out who that driver worked for.

The incident occurred a week and a half ago on Valencia Street, between 16th and 17th streets, as Johnson recounted in detail on her blog, Change Your Life, Ride a Bike. She had been riding her bike when a motorist started to turn right on 17th Street, veering into her path. When she told the motorist there were two cyclists trailing her (her son and husband) she thought she heard him call her a bitch. She gave him the finger and he raced up beside her, threatening to knock her off her bike. When he drove ahead of her, Johnson saw red and blue lights through his rear window (visible in the photo above) and realized he was a plainclothes officer in an unmarked patrol car.

Johnson did the prudent thing and filed a complaint with police at Mission Station. She was thrilled with the reception she received from the desk officer and his supervisor, both of whom encouraged her to proceed with her formal complaint and provide as much evidence as possible.

"I went in expecting them to try to talk me down, but I got the sense as soon as I started describing the guy in the car, the officer knew who I was talking about," said Johnson. "There was no doubt that what I was saying was true."

That sense of satisfaction evaporated when Johnson heard that investigations at the Office of Citizens Complaints (OCC) take on average nine months to be completed, and longer if litigation is involved.

"If it were reversed, if I had threatened him or he had perceived that I had threatened him, he would have arrested me and I would have to have a lawyer right now," said Johnson. "Citizens are discriminated against by the fact that they are not in a uniform. It's okay for us to wait."

Joyce Hicks, Executive Director of the OCC, said she takes all allegations of misconduct seriously, but investigations take time. "We need a preponderance of evidence to prove or disprove the complaints that the action happened," she said. "When we have one-on-one, it's hard. If we have credible independent witnesses that assist us, that helps."

Though Johnson's husband and son witnessed the incident, there were two other officers in the car with the driver, so their testimony could be significant and could make a determination more difficult.

"If you have interested parties, then it's again difficult for us to determine whether or not the complaint occurred or didn't occur, and whether it was proper or improper," said Hicks. If there were other witnesses to the incident, that would bolster the case.

Johnson said she didn't stop to ask any strangers if they saw what happened.

Hicks assured Streetsblog that her office had "as much teeth as any police department Internal Affairs department has," because they can issue subpoenas, they have document protocol overseen by the Police Commission, and they have independent authority under the City Charter to take any case to the Police Commission.

SFPD spokesperson Lt. Lyn Tomioka, who said that she was prohibited by law from commenting on any particular personnel investigation, also noted that while she was happy the officers at Mission Station did as they were trained to do and were receptive to Johnson, one should not read anything into their behavior for evidence supporting the misconduct allegation.

"When misconduct comes to a supervisor's attention, they shall and are required to take a statement," said Tomioka, adding that the department relied on the OCC to conduct preliminary investigations, particularly if an officer was on-duty when the complaint occurred. "We have OCC for a reason and that's so we have an independent team to investigate allegations. These are allegations that have to be investigated."

Tomioka said Hicks and the OCC "have a good reputation for being very thorough in their investigations," but added that there isn't a "way of fast tracking one investigation over another."

Johnson wasn't mollified by the assurances made by Tomioka or Hicks. Though she didn't intend to immediately hire a lawyer, she was upset that it could be a year before she had a resolution to the case.

"If this was just an issue that this guy was just jonesing to give me a parking ticket that's one thing, but these are serious allegations," said Johnson.