Victim advocates have threatened to sue the San Francisco Police Department for repeatedly flouting a nearly two-decade-old state law requiring the speedy release of police reports to domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
California law has required police to release incident reports within five days to survivors and the victims of human trafficking, stalking and elder abuse since a 1999 amendment to Section 6228 of the California Family Code.
But Bay Area Legal Aid attorney Fawn Jade Koopman says the department has withheld police reports for weeks or months if not altogether from survivors who need the records to seek restraining orders in court.
“There’s a real harm when these reports are late,” Koopman said at the most recent Police Commission meeting. “What that ends up meaning is my client can’t get a domestic violence restraining order.”
Facing a potential lawsuit from the Bay Area Legal Aid, Police Chief Bill Scott has agreed to come into compliance with the state law. In turn, the Bay Area Legal Aid agreed to hold off on the lawsuit.
The Police Commission amended SFPD policy to match the requirements of state law last Wednesday in a step toward resolving the issue.
“It is our responsibility to get this fixed and get this done,” Scott told the commission. “I did promise that we would do that and we will. We want to be compliant with the law and the process.”
Koopman said the department had relied incorrectly on another state law that is older than the 1999 amendment to Section 6228 and allows for police reports to be withheld during an ongoing investigation.
The department still has to hash out internal procedures for meeting the requirements, which advocates say the department promised to have done by July.
With 2019 around the corner, Bay Area Legal Aid attorney Jeanne Finberg said at the meeting, “now I’m sorry that we didn’t sue, because July was too long.”
“We threatened to sue but we didn’t sue, because the chief indicated that they would be in compliance and if we stopped threatening to sue that he could work with the department to change things around,” Finberg said. “We honored that request. We didn’t sue. We didn’t talk to the press, but we have been kept in the dark.”
Samara Marion, a director with the Department of Police Accountability who worked on the policy amendment, said the issue came to light last year during a working group to improve language access in the SFPD.
Marion said survivors need the police reports to take time off from work without the risk of losing their jobs.
“They need it when they need to move out immediately and not be breaking their lease,” Marion said.
Various members of the Police Commission expressed concern about the lack of compliance.
“There really isn’t any reason why we can’t comply with the law, especially when it’s a 20-year-old law,” said Commissioner Petra De Jesus.
Commissioner John Hamasaki called the lack of compliance “embarrassing.”
“This is a unique challenge in San Francisco,” Hamasaki said. “This law exists and we need to fix this”
Koopman said the SFPD may be the only department in California that does not release the reports within five days.
“We are not seeing this in Alameda County or anywhere within the Bay Area where we represent survivors, or anywhere in the state actually,” Koopman said.
The Police Commission ordered the department to provide quarterly updates on the release of police reports to victims and is expected to hold another hearing on the issue Jan. 16.