A cavalcade of Public Defender’s office employees speaking at Wednesday night’s Police Commission meeting accused the San Francisco Police Department of “stonewalling” on the delivery of newly available police misconduct files that could determine whether their clients should be freed.
It was not the first time the office voiced the concern, and likely won’t be the last.
The records were made available on Jan. 1 under California’s Senate Bill 1421, a police transparency law that makes available records of officer dishonesty and on-the-job sexual misconduct, as well as records of serious and deadly use of force.
“As of today, we are 156 days into the year,” Jacque Wilson, a deputy public defender, told the Police Commission during public comment. “As we speak, we have people sitting in cages waiting for these records to be released.”
Some 10 interns, law students, and fellow attorneys with the office echoed his frustration. Zac Dillon, a legal assistant with the Public Defender’s office, said that the SFPD has delivered a total of three records to date. The Department of Police Accountability, which investigates citizen complaints against officers, has delivered one, he said.
“You’ll be hearing more about this,” Dillon said.
Police Commission Vice President Damali Taylor requested a July 10 hearing on the matter. She and the other commissioners did not comment further on the complaints during the meeting.
After SB 1421 went into effect, the SFPD received a flood of requests from media outlets, law offices and police accountability groups. These entities, including Mission Local, have received repeated letters stating that the department cannot fulfill the requests within the statutory 20-day maximum due to a “backlog.”
In an April presentation to the Board of Supervisors, SFPD Chief Bill Scott said that more than 13,000 files have been requested. He asked the Budget and Finance Committee for more resources to handle the requests.
Despite the value of the records to the media and other members of the public, the expedient delivery of the files is of particular importance to defense attorneys. An arresting officer with a known history of dishonesty cannot be a reliable witness during court proceedings, and access to the files can make that history known.
Prior to Jan. 1, defense attorneys relied on so-called “Pitchess motions,” a request to access the personnel record of the arresting officer. But public defenders complain that these motions take too long, depend on the discretion of a judge, and initially only provide only the name and contact information of a person who complained against an officer — not specifics of the allegations. The defense must then investigate an allegation of dishonesty on its own.
“Pitchess is a joke,” Wilson told Mission Local in May.
Public defenders are also concerned that the Department of Police Accountability, one of the SFPD’s oversight bodies, is coordinating too heavily with the police on responding to the records. They pointed to a draft procedure that “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,” Wilson said in a statement. “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.”