Police say ‘backlog’ prevents release of potential misconduct files
The San Francisco Public Defender’s office is accusing the San Francisco Police Department of withholding newly available police misconduct records that could change the course of more than two dozen ongoing criminal cases.
The public defender’s requests were made under California Senate Bill 1421. The law took effect at the beginning of this year and declassifies sustained complaints of on-the-job dishonesty and sexual assault by officers, as well as records of serious and deadly use of force.
“There are people in jail right now whose freedom and liberty could depend on whether these records are released,” said Jacque Wilson, a deputy public defender.
So far, the public defender’s office has made 29 individual requests for the files of San Francisco police officers, relevant to roughly as many cases. The credibility of these officers is of direct consequence in these ongoing cases.
Thus far, Wilson said, the SFPD has provided none of the files. He said there is no mechanism to fast-track requests for time-sensitive matters, such as ongoing cases.
“This is stonewalling and protecting police officers,” Wilson said. “That’s all it is.”
David Stevenson, the police department’s director of strategic communications, didn’t see it that way. He wrote to Mission Local that the public defender’s office “has long been able to make the proper evidentiary motions (for example, Pitchess motions) under the law to obtain records that are relevant to their ongoing cases.”
A Pitchess motion is a request by the defense to access the personnel record of the arresting officer.
But Wilson said Pitchess motions simply take too long, depend on the discretion of a judge, and initially provide only the name and contact information of a person who complained against an officer — not specifics of the allegations.
“Pitchess is a joke,” Wilson said. “Because Pitchess does not work for our clients.”
If the Public Defender’s office is not able to obtain the needed records in a timely manner, Wilson said his office plans to file complaints to “whoever will listen.” The office today filed a complaint with Sunshine Ordinance Task Force and Wilson said he’d consider other legal options down the road.
Disclosing troubling officer history in an expedited fashion would be of interest to more than just defense attorneys, however. The District Attorney would likely want to know who he or she is putting on the stand as well. To wit, a Los Angeles Times investigation found that one Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff with a history of dishonesty had testified in some 312 cases, resulting in the convictions of more 230 people.
In some cases, after prosecutors belatedly learned of the deputy’s misconduct, judges were forced to throw out the convictions of people who subsequently went on to commit violent crimes.
In addition to the targeted requests affecting two dozen cases, Wilson says the public defender’s office has made a voluminous query for the potential misconduct records of all 2,315-odd sworn SFPD police officers.
“They haven’t released any records 120 days into the year to an organization that’s supposed to keep them accountable,” he said. “I don’t see how there’s much more to it than grabbing a file … and then going into the review process.”
Stevenson of the SFPD pointed to a “backlog” of more than 79 requests that “require extensive research.” And the public defender doesn’t get to skip in line. “The research, processing and final review of the requests for records is prioritized based on the order in which the requests were/are received.”
At a Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee hearing last week, SFPD Chief Bill Scott said that roughly 13,450 personnel records have been requested under SB 1421, which would require 294,400 hours of work to review. He said more resources would be necessary: enough new bodies to work 15,000 hours a year to fulfill these requests.
Currently, the SFPD has five sworn officers and five civilian staffers working on the requests — with one civilian staffer dedicated solely to the requests, according to Stevenson.
Zac Dillon, a legal assistant with the public defender, argued that based on the chief’s numbers — dividing the number of files by the number of hours needed — “there should have been dozens of cases reviewed by now.”
“But we don’t have any,” he said.
Stevenson confirmed that the department has released only one SB 1421 record to date. But it was a big one: more than 1,000 pages.
The SFPD’s release of SB 1421 records was delayed when the San Francisco Police Officers Association, the union representing most members of the department, filed a lawsuit on March 1 challenging the “retroactivity” of the law, arguing that existing records are not subject to request. The union dropped the lawsuit after a California Appellate Judge ruled later that month that pre-2019 records should be made public.
In addition to legal entities making these request, dozens of newsrooms — including a coalition of California-wide media organizations of which Mission Local is a member — have made requests in San Francisco and elsewhere.
“I think that this law was passed with idea the public has right to know this information,” Dillon said. “But from our prospective, jurors are members of the public — and juries have a right to know this information as well.”