Lifting the veil of secrecy shrouding police misconduct

Proposed law aims to help SF hold police accountable

In the two years since a state transparency law went into effect, San Francisco police have released previously secret disciplinary records from dozens of police shootings and a few incidents of police misconduct.

Now the same state lawmaker behind Senate Bill 1421 is pushing new legislation that would expand the scope of disclosable records beyond the current parameters, which only include shootings and proven allegations of 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 cleared the state Assembly Wednesday, and needs one final vote in the Senate before heading to the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Proponents of the bills say they’re meant to lift the “veil of secrecy” that has long kept the public from knowing when any 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 flows from the same lack of transparency — officers avoiding discipline by jumping from one agency to another before an investigation is complete.

Antioch police, for instance, hired a former San Francisco police officer in 2019 who quit a day before internal police investigators found he should be suspended over his conduct during a police shooting.

The new legislation would require police to make a record of the misconduct, even if an officer quits before an investigation is complete, and a hiring agency to review that record before employing the officer.

Presenting her legislation Wednesday to the San Francisco Police Commission, 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 allows our agencies to know who they are hiring,” she said. “That’s important because what we have seen in a lot of lawsuits is that later, when things come out about an officers’ past behavior in another jurisdiction, they had no idea, they were never given that info. It only comes out in the lawsuits.”

Some police reformers have hailed SB 1421 for increasing transparency. Commission Vice President Cindy Elias said the legislation “changed the game” by holding both officers and agencies accountable.

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

But the legislation isn’t without its problems.

While Police Chief Bill Scott supports the transparency created by SB 1421, he said the legislation created an “unmanagable” backlog of records for his department to process without state funding.

“Although we do our best, it really takes an army of people to get those records processed,” Scott said at the meeting.

Meanwhile, a representative from the Public Defender’s Office questioned how effective SB 1421 has been at lifting the veil of secrecy over police misconduct.

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

The Public Defender’s Office has asked the department to conduct a search for each officer on the force to determine whether any records exist 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 has not made that determination for 85 percent of officers on the force.

Unless the process is expedited, Dillon worried that disclosable records would “sit on a shelf for years.”

As of the end of June, police data shows the department has released records related to 80 police shooting cases, 24 cases involving great bodily injury, one dishonesty case and two sexual assault cases.

But the SFPD isn’t the only agency in San Francisco that has to comply with the legislation.

The Department of Police Accountability, The City’s civilian police watchdog, has also released 11 police shooting cases, 33 great bodily injury cases and one dishonesty cases as of mid-July.

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