Capt. Valerie Matthews (left), Chief Bill Scott (Center), and Capt. Steven Ford (right), address Bayview community about the Dec. 1 police shooting of Keita O’Neil. Photo by Laura Wenus

The San Francisco Police Department needs to improve its body camera and search warrant policies, as well as its system for taking the reports of sexual assault victims, according to the department responsible for investigating complaints against the police.

The Department of Police Accountability (DPA) detailed these three areas for improvement in a report sent to the Police Commission last week. The recommendations in the so-called “Sparks Report” were based on recent citizen complaints filed with the department.

As it stands, the SFPD is not required by law to follow the policy suggestions — and a comprehensive 2016 federal Department of Justice assessment of the SFPD found that the department has largely ignored the report’s suggestions.

That should not happen, the DOJ said, suggesting the department review such recommendations and “take direct action where appropriate.” The SFPD, however, still has no mechanism for responding these recommendations in a timely manner.

Still, Paul Henderson, the DPA’s director, says the policy recommendations are meant “to raise awareness” about ongoing issues and “spark informed conversation” that could result in policy changes within the police department.

“There’s a lot of meat in these policy recommendations,” he said, noting that he narrowed the list to three large issues that the department can concentrate on. “A lot of these things we talk about in our Sparks Report are relevant to things the general public wants to know about.”

“If we’re not having a conversation [to improve these policies], it’s like having a car without gas,” he added. “The goal is to spark a next step.”

First and foremost on the list is the department’s body-camera policy. Currently, the SFPD policy only requires officers to activate their cameras during detentions, arrests, traffic and pedestrian stops, vehicle pursuits, searches and consensual encounters where an officer believes a person has knowledge of criminal activity.

However, the DPA said more than half of its sustained cases in the third quarter of 2018 — nine of 17 — involved violations of the two-year-old policy.

Paul Henderson, the director for San Francisco’s Department of Police Accountability. Photo by JoeBill Muñoz.

The violations included “several cases” where officers did not activate their body cameras during investigations of violent crimes, as well as an incident where an officer turned on his camera only after shooting a civilian. (DPA officials declined to specify which incident the report was referring to, though officers failed to activate their cameras before shooting Keita O’Neil in December 2017.)

“The failure to activate one’s [body camera] or to activate only the last segment of an incident,” the report states, “undermines transparency, accountability, and confidence in the Department.”

It also makes it impossible to act on citizen complaints.

In that vein, the DPA is now recommending that officers must activate their cameras before “initiating any investigative or enforcement activity involving a member of the public” — essentially anytime an officer receives a call for service. The report notes several times that is the standard used by the Los Angeles Police Department.

The report also recommends that the officers must provide a copy of a search warrant before searching someone’s property. SFPD makes this policy clear in writing, but fails to follow through in practice.

The SFPD’s “Search Warrant Manual” says that officers should show and provide a copy of the warrant to the person whose property the police are searching.

This policy is underscored again in an SFPD brochure informing the public about their rights — specifically, citizens’ rights around warrants, searches, and seizures. It informs the public that when their home is being searched, they should receive a copy of the warrant, an SFPD follow-up form with a report number, and a receipt listing any items that were seized.

That did not happen during a recent search, according to the report.

While providing a copy of the warrant is not required by state law, President Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing emphasizes that “People are more likely to obey the law when they believe that those who are enforcing it have legitimate authority to tell them what to do …”

In other words, providing a warrant makes things easier for everyone.

Last but not least, the DPA offered a raft of recommendations for the SFPD’s system for taking reports from sexual assault victims. Advocates have reported to the DPA that victims — who, in many cases, are reluctant to step into a police station and file a report, are faced with long wait times, have been told to come back later, or are sent to another station.

Victims with a limited English proficiency (LEP), furthermore, have reported that they are not provided with an officer that speaks their native language to take their report, and have “repeatedly” said that “many stations are not welcoming or user-friendly, which is further exacerbated when language assistance is not readily provided.”

This exact issue was thrust into the spotlight last April during a Board of Supervisors hearing in which around a dozen sexual assault survivors shared their traumatic experiences when reporting their crimes to the police department. The most recent report indicates that little has been addressed since the hearing.

It recommends six major changes including: taking reports of victims in a private room; providing reportees with the “Know Your Rights as a Survivor of Sexual Assault” brochure before the interview; allowing an advocate to accompany a victim during an interview; inform a reportee that the report can be taken about the Bay Area Women Against Rape office; providing an LEP officer to take the report of monolingual reportees; and making information regarding sexual assault rights and reporting easily available on its website.

Henderson, the DPA director, compared the contents of the DPA’s Sparks Report to that of the SFPD, which primarily includes administrative improvements like “Uniform Inspections and Associated Forms” and “properly titling” body camera footage.

“What are police saying they need to work on? How are they not identifying same things?” Henderson asked. “It exacerbates the reason why we have an outside agency making these recommendations — because you cannot police yourself.”

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Julian grew up in the East Bay and moved to San Francisco in 2014. Before joining Mission Local, he wrote for the East Bay Express, the SF Bay Guardian, and the San Francisco Business Times.

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