San Francisco Police have released records in five officer-involved shootings this year. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Months in, SFPD still struggles to comply with police transparency law

SB 1421 was intended to shed light on officer misconduct

Nearly six months after California law first required the release of internal records on law enforcement shootings and misconduct, San Francisco police have only divulged information to the public in a handful of cases.

The San Francisco Police Department has released internal files in just five cases since Senate Bill 1421 went into effect at the beginning of January. In each of the cases dating from 2010 to 2015, the officers involved shot at a suspect and were found to have acted within department policy.

The small number of disclosures has prompted the Public Defender’s Office to repeatedly chastise the department at Police Commission meetings. On Wednesday evening, the office was expected to return with about two dozen people who will call on the SFPD to expedite the release of records.

“Law enforcement in San Francisco is deliberately sandbagging the release of these records,” Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson said in a statement. “But we are pushing back just as hard.”

The department released its first batch of records in April on a July 2010 case in which a retired police inspector fired and missed at a shooting suspect. The most recent disclosure came Wednesday when the SFPD released a summary of the administrative findings on the fatal shooting of Mario Woods.

In all, the department has released records on:

  • A July 3, 2010 discharge in which then-Inspector John Newman shot at a gunman outside a strip club in North Beach and missed
  • A Dec. 16, 2011 discharge in which Officer Gabriel Alcaraz fired at the driver of a moving vehicle and missed
  • The June 7, 2011 fatal shooting of a suspected bank robber near Buena Vista Park by Officer Albert Lieu and then-Sgt. Scott Ryan
  • The March 21, 2014 fatal shooting of 28-year-old Alex Nieto at Bernal Hill by Lt. Jason Sawyer, Officer Richard Schiff, Officer Roger Morse and Officer Nathan Chew
  • The Dec. 2, 2015 fatal shooting of 26-year-old Mario Woods by officers Charles August, Winson Seto, Antonio Santos, Nicholas Cuevas and Scott Phillips

The department began releasing records after a court order temporarily barring disclosures under SB 1421 was lifted in late March when the police union dropped its lawsuit contesting the transparency law. Officials have since stressed that preparing the records for release is a heavy burden.

SB 1421 not only requires the release of records on police shootings but in cases where an officer was found to have been dishonest or committed sexual assault.

The dishonesty records are particularly important for the Public Defender’s Office, which represents clients who could unknowingly have dishonest officers testify against them.

Though the defense can currently obtain information about dishonest officers by filing a Pitchess motion, the process is lengthy and yields only the name and number of the person who filed the complaint.

“If there’s information about these officers being dishonest in the past or possibly having some sort of patterns and practices, that’s information that the jury should hear to be able to evaluate the officer as they would anyone else who testifies,” said Zac Dillon, a legal assistant with the office.

Dillon has asked the department to release records on around 150 officers who are involved in cases the office is handling. But the office has only been given files that were also handed to the media.

Sgt. Michael Andraychak, a police spokesperson, said department has been dealing with an “extremely voluminous” number of requests that have created a backlog since the beginning of the year.

“The San Francisco Police Department has made extensive efforts to increase transparency and trust with the communities we serve and will continue these efforts under the provisions of SB 1421,” Andraychak said in an email.

“A number of records requests received since the January 1st implementation date require extensive research and we have assigned personnel and allocated resources to respond to each request,” he continued.

The department could soon receive some relief.

In her two-year budget proposal last week, Mayor London Breed included $7.4 million in funding to help the SFPD as well as the Department of Police Accountability and the Sheriff’s Department implement SB 1421.

Of that funding, $4.9 million would be used to fund 11 positions for the Police Department, four positions for the DPA and one position for the Sheriff’s Department. The DPA is The City’s police watchdog.

Like the Police Department, The City’s other departments have released files in only a limited number of cases and have not escaped scrutiny from the Public Defender’s Office.

Meanwhile, the Police Commission is still debating a policy for the Police Department to follow when releasing the records.

At issue with the policy is whether the department should notify officers in advance of releasing records.

That policy will be heard at a later date.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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