San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott promised to bring the department into compliance with state laws on the release of domestic violence rules within a month. That was in June of 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

SFPD endangers domestic violence survivors with slow release of police reports, lawsuit alleges

Attorneys for three women say the department regularly flouts state law

A new lawsuit alleges the San Francisco Police Department’s “policy and practice” of failing to release incident reports to domestic violence survivors on time is putting women and children at risk of harm.

The nonprofit Bay Area Legal Aid sued police Monday on behalf of three women alleging the department routinely flouts state law. Since 1999, law enforcement agencies have been required to release incident reports to the victims of certain crimes including domestic violence within five to 10 days.

But attorneys for the women argue that San Francisco police take 50 days on average to release the reports. In the most extreme case, one of the women who filed suit has waited 411 days as of Tuesday to obtain two incident reports from the department, according to her attorney, Fawn Jade Korr.

For a survivor, a police report can be the key piece of evidence needed to obtain a restraining order against an abuser in court. Without a report, requests for a protective order are at times denied or delayed indefinitely.

“We don’t know how many women have died as a result of SFPD’s failure to act to enforce this law,” Jeanne Finberg, another one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit, said in a statement Tuesday. “But we do know that women who cannot get orders for protection are in danger.”

John Cote, a spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, which represents the SFPD in court, said the department “is committed to taking appropriate steps to provide survivors of domestic violence with incident reports so survivors can seek legal protections.”

“The City works every day to counter domestic violence,” Cote said. “We take it very seriously.”

Bay Area Legal Aid first raised the issue with the department last June, according to Korr. At the time, Police Chief Bill Scott said the department would be in compliance with Section 6228 of the California Family Code by the end of the following month.

The nonprofit held off on a lawsuit. But after survivors continued to have their requests delayed, Korr and Finberg brought the problem to the attention of the Police Commission last December.

“It is our responsibility to get this fixed and get this done,” Scott said at the meeting. “I did promise that we would do that and we will. We want to be compliant with the law and the process.”

The commission amended a Department General Order at the meeting to match state law and formed a working group to examine the issue.

The working group has since met three times to develop detailed directions for specific police units to follow when disclosing reports to survivors.

“The commission is dedicated to ensuring that domestic violence and sexual assault survivors have access to their reports in compliance with Section 6228,” said Commissioner John Hamasaki, who formed the working group. “Any delays beyond the statutory deadline are unacceptable.”

But advocates decided to file a lawsuit after the department refused to share a final version of the proposal with them by the end of April.

The lawsuit asks a San Francisco Superior Court judge to require the SFPD to come into compliance with the law.

The complaint includes the names of the three women plaintiffs, however the San Francisco Examiner decided against naming them as they are the survivors of domestic violence.

Korr said the failure to release the reports in a timely manner appears to be a problem unique to the SFPD, at least for the region.

“I can’t say that they are the only,” Korr said. “But they are an outlier.”

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