Forged by tragedy: SFPD Chief Scott and activist Lisa McNair talk reconciliation, reform

To understand the intertwining of the lives of Bill Scott and Lisa McNair, you have to go back to Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s. 

McNair and the San Francisco police chief both grew up in what was considered "Ground Zero" for the civil rights movement.  

"Catalyst for the following years, sweeping civil rights legislations, Voting Rights Act—all those things that spurred from that movement during that time," said Chief Scott. "Had it not been for those things, I probably wouldn’t be here."

Months before Scott was born, a vicious crime hit his neighborhood church.  On September 15, 1963, four members of the Ku Klux Klan bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church. The blast killed four young Black girls, including 11-year-old Denise McNair, Lisa's sister. The bombing is considered a turning point in the civil rights movement. 

"I think because people might have thought this part of our history was over and gone," said McNair. "But it reared its ugly head in the last few years. So these stories need to be shared and told so history will not repeat itself."

Chief Scott's father-in-law taught three of the four victims, even serving as pallbearer at one of the funerals. Scott and McNair grew up watching videos and hearing first-hand accounts from family and friends who protested segregation; peaceful demonstrators who were met with high-power fire hoses and police dogs.

Despite what she witnessed and what was taken from her family—McNair's parents made it clear: there was no room for hate in their home.  

"Mom and dad just said, you know, when I was little and asked, ‘should I hate white people?," recalled McNair.  "They were like, 'No, you shouldn’t hate anyone, you should take each person as an individual and love them like Christ loves us.'"

Shaped by their collective history, Chief Scott entered into a career in law enforcement and McNair devoted her life to sharing a message of reconciliation and social justice with the world. 

"Human stories help people understand that we are all human," explaind McNair.  "We all have sorrow, we all have joy, and it doesn’t have a color and we’ve got to keep that humanity in our forefront."

Chief Scott invited McNair to speak to SFPD's command staff as police departments across the country are being challenged to evaluate and reform, particularly when it comes to interacting with the Black community. 

"When people don’t believe in us, when they don’t trust us, that’s a problem and that was one of the takeaways for everyone in the room," said Chief Scott. 

He learned that first hand in 1991, as a rookie LAPD officer.  He watched with the world as four white officers beat Rodney King, a Black man-- all of it captured on video. After their acquittal, riots broke out in the streets. Then-Officer Scott was amid the chaos, calling it a formative moment in his life and an example of a community feeling betrayed by the criminal justice system.  

"We, as a profession, have caused pain, and we’ve caused harm," said Chief Scott. "If you don’t know...acknowledge those things, you can’t move forward and that has been very difficult for many in this profession."

To that end, he says there's still work to do in his own department.  He's committed to changes highlighted in a 2016 report from the Department of Justice. It found, in part, officers disproportionately stopped Black drivers. The chief points to recent changes to use-of-force, detainment and other policies as progress, but again, says they must do better. 

"I don’t care how you look at it demographically, it’s still out of proportion," said Scott. "It says the same thing: we have to understand what our role in that is: is it our policies, is it our thinking, is it our culture?"

Much of the national converstaion centers around law enforcement funding.  Mayor London Breed is redirecting about $80 million, over two years, from the SFPD budget into the Black community. 

The police union opposes any cut of funding that impacts staffing. Still, Chief Scott maintains measured support of the moves. 

"Reallocation, putting funds and support where it’s going to help this issue at its core, I’m all for that," said Chief Scott. "I think it’s the right thing to do. I think it’s going to take sacrifice. I don’t advocate for stripping our budget to the point we can’t operate or we don’t have budget to take care of this city. There’s room to negotiate."

All this comes as the nation watches the trial of Derek Chauvin, the ex-Minneapolis police officer accused of killing George Floyd.

For Scott and McNair, it's another historical moment, as society grapples with racial inequality and police brutality. 

"It woke up people," said McNair. "But the grief of it was, why did someone have to die so brutally for us to get it? But definitely I think police need to do homework all over the country, to show they’re here to protect and serve rather than harm."

"When there are miscarriages of justice by police officers, is there accountability, is there justice for society, and the people who have been aggrieved and victimized? I think this trial is important to answer that question," said Chief Scott. "We don’t know how it’s going to turn out."

As McNair wrapped up her Bay Area visit, she challenged Chief Scott and the command staff: when policing, to keep the community center focus. 

"I think the thing they should do is continue on with that work and be consistent and be mindful of all human beings, I think they’re doing that," said McNair. 

"Let’s not let us be the department who has to be forced to change," said Chief Scott. "Let’s be the leaders. That’s why we brought her here to touch those minds and those hearts."