What is CopWatch SF?

CopWatch SF is a collection of records about local police, sheriffs, and other government actors that are of interest to the public, including victims’ families, activists, civil rights advocates, criminal defense attorneys, public officials, and journalists. It is a byproduct of the San Francisco Public Defender’s core function of zealous defense for those criminally charged in San Francisco who cannot afford counsel.

CopWatch SF is a living database maintained by the Public Defender’s Integrity Unit that is routinely updated as local agencies release more public records and as new events unfold or are publicly reported. The records are presented as received, with minimal notation for organizational or descriptive purposes only.

The images below are taken from public records and may be disturbing.

How does the Department of Police Accountability fit in?

The DPA is required to investigate complaints from the public about the San Francisco Police Department and San Francisco Sheriff’s Office (until the Sheriff Oversight Board and Office of Inspector General are in place following 2020 passage of Proposition D). State law prevents DPA from publishing most of these complaints, its investigations, and its findings.

The DPA complaints included in this database were filed by the Public Defender’s office after our staff or those we represent experienced or witnessed police or sheriff misconduct. When we have made complaints, we have been able to track the outcome of the DPA investigation, including any discipline that may result.

(If you would like to make a complaint against an SFPD officer or SF Sheriff’s deputy, click here.)

What kinds of public records are available in CopWatch SF?

This database contains the following categories of information:

  • an incident released under the CA public records law as described below
  • media coverage about a cop
  • civil suits involving allegations against a cop
  • records of a cop being arrested, prosecuted, or convicted in criminal court
  • complaints made about a cop to DPA and related DPA findings where available

Where does the public records law material come from?

Historically, California has protected police personnel records from public disclosure to an extreme degree, including all misconduct and disciplinary records, leading the ACLU to rank California as “the most secretive state in the country” on this measure.
In 2019, California Senate Bill 1421 changed the law to make four types of police conduct records public, modifying Penal Code section 832.7:

  • When a cop shoots a firearm at a person
  • When a cop uses force against a person, causing great bodily injury or death
  • When a cop has a “sustained allegation” of sexual assault
  • When a cop has a “sustained allegation” of dishonesty

In January 2019, the San Francisco Public Defender formally requested the newly public records from SFPD, DPA, San Francisco Police Commission, San Francisco Sheriff’s Office, California Highway Patrol, San Francisco District Attorney’s Office, and BART Police.

Is CopWatch SF a complete database of all public records for local police and sheriff?

No. CopWatch SF contains only what the Public Defender’s office has received through public records requests, what we have found from other public sources, and what we have gathered ourselves. The database is incomplete because many public records remain undisclosed or shielded from disclosure—either due to lack of prioritization by the disclosing agencies or because state law still prohibits their release.

At the time CopWatch SF went live—in November 2020, more than 22 months after the new law became effective—the Public Defender has received records on just over 200 cops, or less than 10 percent of all active SFPD officers. We have received even fewer records from CHP, the SF Sheriff, and BART police.

And note, some cops do not have records in any of the described categories and will not be included in CopWatch SF even when the agencies have fully complied with the public records law.

These public agency records are supplemented with some media reports and civil lawsuits. We have almost certainly missed stories and cases and for those included, we may have missed relevant follow-up information. If you believe we have missed something that should be included in CopWatch SF, please email us at PUBDEF-CopWatch@sfgov.org.

Will CopWatch SF ever have all records on SF police and sheriffs that are a matter of public interest?

No, not unless state confidentiality laws change further.

Is this a “misconduct” database?

No. Many of the public records released do not include findings of misconduct or wrongdoing. Some cops in the database were deemed to have acted lawfully by their department and/or DPA—in some cases contrary to strong public opinion. Some cases led to policy changes and the conduct would be against policy and/or unlawful if it happened today.

Why is the SF Public Defender sharing CopWatch SF?

We began this database to make the records found and received accessible in-house for our defenders. Though much of this information is publicly available on the DPA and SFPD websites, court websites, and/or various news outlets’ archives, collecting them all in one place can be a resource to outside defenders, advocates, academics, journalists, and the community at large.