Lifting the veil of secrecy surrounding police misconduct


In the two years since an open state law took effect, San Francisco police have released previously secret disciplinary records of dozens of police shootings and a few incidents of police misconduct. .

Now, the same state legislator behind Senate Bill 1421 is proposing new legislation that would expand the scope of documents to be disclosed beyond the current parameters, which only include shootings and proven allegations. dishonesty or sexual assault.

The new legislation, Senate Bill 16 by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would also require police to disclose cases involving sustained findings of bias or discrimination and unlawful searches or arrests.

The legislation was approved by the state Assembly on Wednesday and requires a final vote in the Senate before heading to Governor Gavin Newsom’s office.

Supporters of the bills say they are intended to lift the “veil of secrecy” that has long kept the public from knowing when an officer in California has engaged in misconduct – and whether a department is holding its officers accountable.

But the new legislation also aims to address another problem that stems from the same lack of transparency — officers avoiding discipline by jumping from one agency to another before an investigation is complete.

Antioch police, for example, hired a former San Francisco cop in 2019 who quit a day before internal police investigators discovered he should be suspended for his conduct in a police shooting.

The new legislation would require police to record misconduct, even if an officer resigns before an investigation is complete, and a recruitment agency to review this record before employing the officer.

Presenting his legislation to the San Francisco Police Commission on Wednesday, Skinner said the bill won’t prevent agencies from employing officers with baggage, but will at least allow them to do so with “eyes wide open.” “.

“It at least lets our agencies know who they’re hiring,” she said. “It’s important because what we’ve seen in many prosecutions is that later on when things come out about an officer’s past behavior in another jurisdiction, they had no idea, they never received this information. This only comes out in trials.

Some police reformers have hailed SB 1421 for increasing transparency. Commission Vice President Cindy Elias said the legislation was “a game changer” in holding officers and agencies accountable.

“If the department is still employing officers who have these types of cases, then that’s something that obviously needs to be looked at as well,” Elias said at the Police Commission meeting.

But the legislation is not without problems.

While Police Chief Bill Scott supports the transparency created by SB 1421, he said the legislation created an “unmanageable” backlog of cases his department had to deal with without state funding.

“Although we’re doing our best, it really takes an army of people to deal with these cases,” Scott said at the meeting.

Meanwhile, a representative from the Public Defender’s Office questioned the effectiveness of SB 1421 in lifting the veil of secrecy over police misconduct.

“The veil is still up in San Francisco,” Zac Dillon, a legal assistant with the Office of the Public Defender who pushed the department to release records under SB 1421, said at the meeting.

The Office of the Public Defender has asked the department to conduct a search for each force officer to determine if there are any documents in their file that could be released under SB 1421. While the legislation has been in place for Nearly three years, Dillon said the department still hasn’t made that decision for 85% of officers on the force.

Unless the process was expedited, Dillon feared the documents to be disclosed would “sit on the shelf for years.”

As of the end of June, police data shows that the department released records for 80 police shooting cases, 24 grievous bodily harm cases, one dishonesty case and two sexual assault cases.

But the SFPD isn’t the only organization in San Francisco that must comply with the law.

The Police Accountability Department, the city’s civilian police watchdog, also released 11 police shooting cases, 33 major bodily injury cases and one dishonesty case in mid-July.

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