police commission vs. police cars

Police transparency initiative SB 16 passed with little opposition in the state Assembly Wednesday, opening the door for more public visibility into cases of police misconduct across the state of California. 

The new bill, if signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the coming weeks, will make “sustained” findings of police misconduct — such as use of unreasonable or excessive force, unlawful arrests or searches, and bias or discrimination — subject to the California Public Records Act. 

Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) spearheaded the bill as an expansion of her earlier SB 1421, a groundbreaking 2018 law that made police officer personnel records available as public records. In the decades prior, while these records could be requested by the media and the public for other public officials, police officers’ records had been kept confidential. 

SB 16 also includes measures to make it difficult for police officers to obscure any history of misconduct, which Skinner explained before the San Francisco Police Commission last night, after announcing the bill’s passage in the Assembly. 

“California’s secrecy was so great that even a police chief, a hiring agency, could not necessarily access all the records about an officer that they wanted to hire,” Skinner said. “What we saw is that officers were quitting agencies before a record could be established, so they could move on without, quote unquote, any blemish to” their record. 

By leaving and landing a new job with a new department, officers who might have been involved in misconduct were able to leave the prior incident uninvestigated, and therefore undisclosed to their new employer. 

Today, not only is a record required to be established, Skinner said, but under SB 16, any agency hiring a new police officer must request and review those records. The new law would also remove the provision in current law that prevents complaints more than five years old against a police officer from being used in a court trial. 

During the Police Commission meeting, Skinner received positive remarks and even applause from some police commissioners. 

President Malia Cohen expressed her enthusiasm for the bill, lauding Skinner’s work and SB 1421 for lifting “the veil of secrecy” on police conduct. Commission Vice President Cindy Elias thanked Skinner for her “heroic work,” calling the senator a “true trailblazer.” 

Even the police were more supportive of SB 16, Skinner said, when comparing this bill’s passage to her experience working on SB 1421 just three years ago. 

Where Skinner said there was once much heartache and contention between lawmakers and police unions, this time around, erstwhile opponents “were neutral, did not fight the bill, gave some very constructive suggestions for how to improve it. And I think that that just was a really good indicator of the evolution of policing in our state.” 

But, while reception has been generally positive — even SFPD Chief Bill Scott referred to the increased transparency as “a good thing” — others are not quite convinced. 

During public comment at the Police Commission meeting, Zac Dillon of the San Francisco Public Defender’s office implored the commission to start “living up to the opportunity for transparency” made possible by SB 16 and SB 1421, something he said hasn’t quite happened in the three years since SB 1421 passed

“I regret to inform you that the veil is very much still in place in San Francisco, and the flood of requests … received three years ago have not been addressed,” Dillon said. “My office is still awaiting word on whether or not there even are records to be disclosed for 85 percent of SFPD officers. We’ve been waiting for so long, there’s already nearly another law authorizing the release of more records.” 

Since the passage of SB 1421, the Department of Police Accountability has released to the public more than 31,000 documents dating back to 1982, said Executive Director Paul Henderson. Henderson has expressed his frustration at the difficulty of getting records as simple as body camera footage from the SFPD. 

The DPA team told Mission Local on Thursday that about 10 percent of the backlog of disclosable police records has been addressed, and another 300,000 pages remain unreleased.

Scott, meanwhile, called the backlog of public records requests his department faces “unmanageable,” but stated that the challenges are “not insurmountable” with additional staff and financial resources. 

The new senate bill, if it becomes law, will allow a grace period for police departments to provide old records. This is an acknowledgement of the burden on police departments as they respond to an inevitable influx of requests. However, all new records would require a response within 30 days, Skinner said. 

“I do appreciate that the burden will initially be large, but it will not be very soon thereafter,” Skinner said. “And I think just like the Public Records Act, it’s just part of local government’s responsibility.” 

Eleni Balakrishnan

Eleni is our reporter focused on policing in San Francisco. She first moved to the city on a whim over eight years ago, and the Mission has become her home. Follow her on Twitter @miss_elenius.

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