Wording issues within California’s new police transparency law could allow a large portion of San Francisco’s police misconduct records to remain hidden, San Francisco Police Department officials fear. 

California Senate Bill 1421, which took effect at the beginning of the year, was designed to open up long-classified files of police officers involved in sexual assault cases, on-the-job dishonesty, and serious use of force and police shooting investigations. 

Now, any member of the public can order these records for any officer, so long as the reports sent to them fall under those criteria.

While records of serious use-of-force and police shootings are more easily accessed, many past records of sexual assault and dishonesty could well slip through the cracks — as they were not previously logged and tracked under those exact terms. 

“The definitions we’re using [under the new law] do not identify those records,” said Police Commissioner Cindy Elias, who sits on the city’s SB1421 working group.

She said the number of releasable files under the law will be “tremendously” limited, simply because they are difficult to locate using the terms “dishonesty” and/or “sexual assault.” 

“My concern is what happens to the cases that weren’t tracked,” she said in a phone interview. “I don’t know the answer to that.” 

At a Monday working group meeting on the implementation of the new law, the police department agreed. 

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“There’s no way to search for the category of ‘dishonesty,’” said Lt. Katheryn Waaland, the head of SFPD’s legal division. “Things were not written with that kind of evaluation of ‘improper conduct.’” 

For that reason, she explained, the department is forced to manually sort through the contents of many of the reports to determine whether it satisfies one of the disclosable offenses. Indeed, in 2018, Chief Bill Scott made disciplinary decisions in more than 200 cases — all labeled “improper conduct” in public reports

The chief can impose discipline for relatively lesser offenses, while more grave offenses are decided by the commission. It reviewed 15 such cases in 2018. 

In both instances, the files of the officer will not be turned over to members of the public requesting them until the appeals process has finished. Lesser cases are appealed to the Police Commission and more serious cases are appealed to an administrative judge. It’s unclear how many of the total cases fall under sexual assault or dishonesty. 

But the appeals process and the difficulty of searching for cases could be a factor in why the SFPD has so far released very few records pursuant to the law, citing a “backlog.” So far none of the released cases have concerned sexual assault or dishonesty. 

Waaland said that, in the future, reports would be labeled according to these categories of disclosable offenses. Past reports, however, may not be accessible for quite some time. If ever. 

Elias said following Monday’s meeting that she hopes the city can find a suitable remedy, and disclose all appropriate reports. “I think the spirit of the law is transparency and we should stick to that as closely as we can.”