Senate Bill 1421 was supposed to improve California policing by mandating disclosure regarding problem officers, including those who have inflicted bodily harm, lied, or been involved in sexual misconduct.
As of January, 2019, those records were made public under the California Public Records Act.
In reality, though, not many of these “public” records have ever seen the light of day.
The San Francisco Police Department says its backlog of records requests will take a decade to get through. While it is not surprising that the SFPD — which has slow-walked reforms in general — would suffer a backlog, it is not alone.
The Department of Police Accountability, the watchdog body approved by voters in 2016 as a new iteration of the Office of Citizen Complaints, has also failed to provide many records, most recently estimating its backlog at around 15 years.
So, if increased transparency was meant to improve the SFPD, that is not happening anytime soon.
“Take it to the Police Commission,” voters might say. That Commission is tasked with overseeing not only the Police Department but the Department of Police Accountability. The Police Commission receives monthly updates from each on its progress on SB 1421 records requests.
Earlier this year, however, these updates were relegated to the consent calendar, meaning there is no debate, no questions, no accountability, and no pressure to release records at any reasonable pace. Along with other items on the consent calendar, the updates are approved without discussion.
“I don’t think anyone at the [police] commission really cares anymore,” said deputy public defender Brian Cox, adding that the consent calendar is “where everything goes to die.”
Cox said he was surprised that the Police Commission hasn’t prioritized ensuring that records are provided, given the amount of effort put into making the records public in the first place. The extremely slow pace of providing police records “undermines the entire intent of the law,” said Cox.
The San Francisco public defender’s office has complained for years that records with potentially exonerating information for its clients are not released in a timely manner. Journalists often report not receiving records for years after submitting requests.
While SB 1421 suggests various timelines for disclosure of records, most of these also permit extensions under extenuating circumstances, allowing any agency plenty of wiggle room. The lengthiest timeframe is 18 months after the date of the incident.
Now, the Board of Supervisors may step in.
A new proposal from District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston introduced last week would require the Police Department, the Department of Police Accountability, and the Police Commission to report directly to the board every quarter, said Melissa Hernandez, a legislative aide from Preston’s office.
The board would observe how long each request has been pending, and the amount of staff hours actually being spent on producing records for the public.
“Seeing those numbers would … make it easier to see if they’re not prioritizing” releasing the records, Hernandez said. “How long are these actually taking?”
An added layer of urgency comes with Senate Bill 16, a new law that will go into effect in January. This law makes even more police records public, this time with a 45-day deadline, barring some exceptions.
How the SFPD, the Department of Accountability, and the Police Commission will shift to meet that deadline is unclear. As it stands, the backlog of requests under SB 1421 appears insurmountable.
Sara Maunder of the Department of Police Accountability told Mission Local that the department has addressed 11 percent of its backlog as of last week. Its current staff includes two attorneys and two legal assistants dedicated full-time to handling records requests.
The Department of Police Accountability has 50 total employees, the vast majority of whom are focused on investigating police misconduct, audits, and policy work, Maunder said.
When the Department of Police Accountability announced to the Police Commission in February that working through the backlog could take nine years, or up to 35 with less staff, there was no action from the Commission. Maunder said an additional request for all audio recordings since then has added another seven years of work.
And, once SB 16 goes into effect, Maunder said her office is anticipating a 15 to 20 percent increase in work.
The SFPD, meanwhile, told Preston’s office in March that it would take up to 10 years to get through its backlog. The SFPD did not respond to requests for an update from Mission Local.
Both the Police Department and the Department of Police Accountability cite massive backlogs and staffing shortages as the reasons for long wait times, but many remain unconvinced this is the real reason.
In the monthly SB 1421 update in September, the Department of Police Accountability reported releasing 2,041 pages of public records, and the SFPD reported releasing 941 pages. The next month, the Department of Police Accountability released 1,484 pages, and the SFPD released 73. The corresponding cases and number of involved officers can vary.
“We are hustling as much as possible. … We want as much disclosed as possible,” said Department of Police Accountability Director Paul Henderson on Monday. He said the SFPD, with its much larger staff, should be “blowing [him] out of the water” in producing records quickly.
But it seems neither department is moving nearly fast enough.
“All we know right now for certain is that the delays that they have projected to us … are just not acceptable,” Hernandez said. “So we want to make sure that we understand fully what is going on.”
While small amounts of new records are released regularly, they are usually several-year-old records on officer shootings, said Cox of the public defender’s office. Although important and of public interest, “there are other types of records, too,” which are needed urgently, he said.
Failing to release records about police officer dishonesty, for example, could allow a dishonest officer to continue arresting citizens and testifying against them for years. Cox said only one officer dishonesty case has been released since the law went into effect, that of Paulo Morgado, who was fired for aggressively arresting a man, then lying about it.
The struggle to access records isn’t exclusively a San Francisco one. Other cities across the state have had trouble getting public records from law enforcement, too.
The city of Oakland recently settled a class action lawsuit brought by a group of journalists who complained that the Oakland Police Department “routinely and systematically ignores the law.” The Los Angeles Times and KQED have also filed lawsuits to get access to records faster.
“We need more public engagement and involvement in this process,” Cox said, “because if folks aren’t aware that these departments are producing these records so slowly, then these issues kind of go away, right?”