Commission seeks transparency on police discipline

The civilian body governing the San Francisco Police Department wants to change state law to give the public the right to learn identities and records of police officers who face discipline.

The San Francisco Police Commission voted Wednesday to approve a resolution urging the Board of Supervisors and the mayor to petition the state Legislature to amend the California Public Records Act.

The move is in response to the state Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Copley Press v. San Diego County. Handed down in San Francisco on Aug. 31, the decision found that a San Diego County newspaper wasn’t entitled to information on the identity or record of a sheriff’s deputy who appeared before the county’s Civil Service Commission for discipline.

The decision came as the San Francisco Police Commission prepared to begin a hearing on disciplinary charges against seven department members who allegedly violated department regulations in processing the “Fajitagate” case of 2002.

While the Police Commission’s practice has been to hold such hearings publicly, it had decided, in light of the decision, to block public access to Thursday’s hearing, Commission Secretary Sgt. Joe Reilly said Wednesday afternoon.

But at Wednesday night’s commission meeting, lawyers and advocates on both sides of the issue testified before the commission, arguing for and against opening the hearing.

Vincent Harrington, a lawyer representing the San Francisco Police Officers Association, argued that the decision granted officers the right to complete privacy, pointing out that other public agencies do not publicize their personnel matters.

“It is a problem that the only way accountability can be achieved is by publicly naming and conducting public hearings about police officers. That sells newspapers, and unfortunately, the allegations, both sensational and lurid, are on the first page, while the results of the hearing are on page 15,” he said.

Karl Olson, a lawyer for a Bay Area newspaper, said transparency is necessary because police carry a “public gun” and “walk the streets with the power of life and death.”

Commissioner David Campos, who moved that the commission adopt the resolution, said after the meeting, “There is a lack of trust by the public of the Police Department. We’re not going to deal with that until the law is changed.”

amartin@examiner.com

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