Department declines to be transparent … about its own transparency procedures


Search a San Francisco reporter’s email inbox for the word “transparency,” and up comes a surfeit of San Francisco Police Department press releases.

“We look forward to continuing to provide these reports in the interest of transparency,” reads a line attached to use of force reports that the department is required — by law — to release.

Another says: “As part of our commitment towards transparency and accountability, a town hall meeting regarding this officer-involved shooting will be held within 10 days.”

Other releases link to the department’s “transparency” website, which lists more mandated transparency initiatives, at least one of which the department seems to be faltering on.

But what about when the SFPD is not required by local laws or the federal government to be transparent? Is it “committed to transparency”?

The San Francisco Police Department is not releasing records related to how it is implementing perhaps one of the most groundbreaking laws on — wait for it — police transparency.

SB 1421, a law written by California Sen. Nancy Skinner that took effect on Jan. 1, requires police departments to release certain personnel records once the department has found an officer guilty of misconduct, as well as department records related to the discharge of a firearm and use of force “resulting in death or great bodily injury.”

The SFPD flirted with sidestepping the transparency law if a last-ditch petition with the state Supreme Court to defang it was successful. It wasn’t.

Now, however, the department’s plan to implement the new law is shrouded in secrecy. Most recently, the SFPD denied local journalist Darwin BondGraham records related to its implementation process.

He asked for: “all policies guides, tutorials, orders, memos, emails, or other types of records which explain how police records personnel and/or other city staff should fulfill records requests under the law’s requirements.”

The department’s response?

“Pursuant to 6254(a) we are unable to disclose documents which are drafts, notes, or inter-agency or intra-agency memoranda [that are not retained by the agency in the ordinary course of business, if the public interest in withholding those records clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.]” (Brackets and emphasis theirs.)

This might have been understandable — but another city agency, the San Francisco Department of Human Resources, released documents related to its processes for implementing the law.

The documents from DHR are clear about exactly which records the city interprets as falling under SB 1421, allowing the public and the media to know what it considers fair game. DHR defines what a “record” under the law is: “investigative reports; photos; audio and video recording; transcripts; autopsy reports; disciplinary records related to the incident; and everything compiled for the District Attorney.”

The Department of Human Resources revealed that it is recommending other agencies review a chart it created “to determine the changes needed to ensure compliance.” The department has offered in its documents to meet with unions over the implementation of the law.

The SFPD is in possession of the records DHR gave to BondGraham. But it withheld them.   

The SFPD’s transparency has improved in recent years — unlike many departments, it released body camera footage of police shootings before the practice was mandated by the state. Yet it remains reflexively tight-lipped on matters where transparency could help civilians understand how police work.

Another recent example: A well-respected station captain in the Bayview recently left his post after only a short stint and little warning. Understandably, community members were surprised and upset.

When Mission Local asked the reason for his departure — just so those very community members could understand exactly why their captain departed — the department would not answer.