San Francisco– Representatives from the Public Defender’s Office will be advocating for the release of previously sealed police personnel files during Wednesday evening’s Police Commission meeting, Deputy Public Defender Jacque Wilson has announced.
“Law enforcement in San Francisco is deliberately sandbagging the release of these records,” said Wilson. “But we are pushing back just as hard. We’ve filed a Sunshine Ordinance complaint and have discussed litigation with the City Attorney. We will not back down.”
California Senate Bill 1421, signed by Governor Jerry Brown at the end of 2018, reclassified certain types of officer records, including records of officer involved shootings and excessive force, as well as sustained allegations of dishonesty or sexual misconduct upon a member or members of the public. These records can now be released subject to a public records request.
These files were supposed to be released beginning on January 1 of this year. Despite multiple requests spanning 6 months, the Public Defender’s Office has received barely a handful.
“We’ve only gotten three files from the San Francisco Police Department, and the media has received two additional,” said Legal Assistant Zac Dillon. According to the police chief, there are 13,000 files. “At the rate of four released, that’s nearly a nearly zero percent return, and absolutely unacceptable.”
Wilson points out that there are people with pending cases who are sitting in jail right now who will benefit from the release of any information regarding officer misconduct. “This is about due process and the right to a fair trial.”
Initially, police unions throughout California sued to bar the release of any records prior to January 1st of this year. In March, the 1 District Court of Appeal rejected the police union’s argument against retroactivity and ruled that the law applies regardless. Currently, multiple cities are withholding releases while they appeal this decision. Many other cities are withholding the files as well, citing Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s argument that police privacy must be protected. In May, a judge dismissed the A.G.’s claim as “unavailing.”
“California is the most secretive state in the Union regarding police files,” said Wilson. “Now that this information will belong to everyone, they are putting up an incredible fight. But we will win this for our clients and the people.”
Not only are they deliberately dragging their feet, said Wilson, there appears to be an alarming collaboration between the Department of Police Accountability and the S.F.P.D. to coordinate what is released by each agency. A procedure guide released by both departments outlines their approach: “To the maximum extent as possible, the departments shall ensure responses to public records requests are consistent between departments.”
“The Department of Police Accountability is supposed to provide oversight, not work in conjunction with the police.” said Wilson. “This bill passed in the interest of the truth, transparency, and the public good. Why is a police watchdog group coordinating so closely with the body that they oversee? These are the public’s records. They belong to all of us,” he said.
The Public Defender’s Office anticipates at least 25 people will attend the Police Commission meeting on Wednesday, June 5. The meeting takes place at 5:30pm in San Francisco City Hall.