Police Commission order may force officers to make discipline settlements public

San Francisco police officers who want to settle disciplinary hearings without a full hearing before the Police Commission may have to make their settlement agreement public, despite a California Supreme Court decision that makes disciplined officers’ identities secret.

On Aug. 31, in the case of Copley v. San Diego County, the California Supreme Court determined in a 6-1 decision that state law does not give the public the right to know the identities of peace officers involved in department discipline.

That decision sealed police and sheriff’s department disciplinary records statewide. Since the decision, the San Francisco Police Commission has been discussing in closed session its ramifications on the commission’s 14-year-old practice of holding open disciplinary hearings. The decision specifically omits any opinion on whether open hearings are constitutional, but it specifically forbids disclosure of officers’ identities.

The draft order on Wednesday’s commission meeting agenda would compel officers seeking a stipulated disposition — meaning an agreement on discipline specific to the individual case — to waive their right to confidentiality.

“A stipulated disposition made by the prosecutor and the police officer without benefit of the commission listening to any of the witnesses, listening to any of the facts behind the case, coming before with everything resolved feels like a backdoor kind of settlement,” Commissioner Petra DeJesus said at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I think that if a disciplinary matter is going to be resolved with something short of a full trial, the public has a right to know the terms of the resolution,” Commission Vice President David Campos said in an interview Thursday. He said the draft order “strikes the right balance in protecting the right of privacy that police officers have and the right of the public to know what is happening in the Police Department.”

The draft resolution was written by the City Attorney’s Office at the request of Commissioners Campos, Teresa Sparks, DeJesus and Joe Alioto Veronese, Campos said. Those commissioners supported it in a preliminary vote earlier this month, but it will not be ratified until the final vote, scheduled for next Wednesday.

Speaking for the San Francisco Police Officers Association, the union of the rank and file, lawyer John Tennant said Wednesday, “To condition a settlement on the express waiver of rights violates what the Supreme Court has instructed us in the Copley decision.” He said the right to appeal is guaranteed by the statewide Police Officers’ Bill of Rights, and that a disposition is “part and parcel” of that right.

The resolution was continued Wednesday at the request of Veronese, who suggested the union be given time to enter suggestions on improving or changing it before it goes to a final vote. Union business agent Steve Johnson said the union has a meeting scheduled with Veronese on Monday to discuss those suggestions.

“We should have a discussion and talk about whether there is any meeting ground, but I really don’t see any,” Johnson said in an interview Thursday.

amartin@examiner.com

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