In a lawsuit served last week, the San Francisco Police Department was accused of ignoring a public records request about its military-style weapons for 15 months.
The records request and subsequent lawsuit were filed by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization that opposes police militarization. By law, the police should have either provided the records, or an explanation for any delay, within 10 days of the October, 2021, request.
The request was intended to uncover what kinds of military-style weapons the police department owns. The Friends asked for purchase records from 2015 for large pieces of equipment, such as rifles and armored vehicles, and records from 2018 for materials such as tear gas and flash-bang grenades. It also requested information about how this equipment has been deployed since 2020.
Some 200 other police and sheriff’s departments across California received the same information request in October, 2021, according to John Lindsay-Poland, co-director of the Friends. But, while the vast majority of jurisdictions provided at least some data in the intervening period, the San Francisco Police Department responded with nothing at all.
“The request for information we made to SFPD was not extraordinary,” said Lindsay-Poland. “But the evasive tactics they used were.”
According to the lawsuit, the request was passed between the police department’s legal office and its media department several times, without any resolution.
“I apologize for the miscommunication on who is handling your request,” reads an email from police public information officer Robert Rueca in December, 2021. “At this stage, the Media Relations Unit will be assisting you to gather the requested documents.”
After that communication, some 20 emails, which can be seen on the public records tracking website Muckrock, were sent to the department to follow up on the request. But, the lawsuit alleges, none of them were answered.
“It is unclear whether Respondent even conducted a search for records responsive to Petitioner’s request,” reads the suit. “By this unlawful and ongoing delay, Respondent has violated the California Public Records Act.”
Rueca today declined to speak, saying that the police department “does not comment on pending litigation.”
Jen Kwart, spokesperson for the City Attorney’s Office, wrote over email that her office was “reviewing the complaint and will respond in Court.”
Lindsay-Poland said that it was imperative that information about military-style weapons is made public, because they are acquired using public funds and can exacerbate violent outcomes in policing, especially against racial minorities.
San Francisco did make a significant step towards transparency around these weapons in December last year, when it passed its new equipment use policy, the same policy that came to international attention when Mission Local wrote that it would codify the San Francisco Police Department’s ability to kill suspects using robots.
The robot portion of the policy was indefinitely paused following public outcry, but the rest of the policy passed. It was intended to bring the city into alignment with California law AB 481, which mandates that all local police departments declare how much they spend on their military-style weapons, and how they are used.
But the policy does not provide a complete record of the department’s weapons. For instance, some 375 semi-automatic rifles, including LAR-15s, were declared in an early draft, but were later removed. This was done on the grounds that the chief of police unilaterally designated them as “standard issue.”
“The law defines ‘military weapons,’ not the chief of police,” responded civil rights lawyer Tifanei Moyer, senior staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, back in November.
In some parts of the policy, it is unclear exactly what equipment the police department has, or how much it paid for it. For instance, in its tabulation of bomb-disposal robots, the department lists how many robots it has overall, plus the cost for each type of model, but it does not record how many of each model it owns, making a full accounting impossible.
These kinds of limitations in San Francisco’s compliance with AB 481, said Lindsay-Poland, make it doubly important that the Friends’ public-record requests are still fulfilled. The requests could also mean more detailed descriptions of weapon usage being released to the public, he added, for incidents such as the shooting of Michael MacFhionghain and Rafael Mendoza last summer.
According to the lawsuit, the nearby Oakland Police Department, Santa Clara Sheriff’s Office, and Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office all complied with the same request that was put to the San Francisco Police Department without issues.
The Orange Police Department is listed as one jurisdiction that did not initially make records available. The Friends sued the department last year, after which it swiftly released the desired information. Alongside the City of Orange, said Lindsay-Poland, San Francisco is one of the large jurisdictions most egregious in its public records failings.
“There were so many other agencies that could do it,” he said. “Why can’t San Francisco?”
Are there any news/updates on the Rafael Mendoza shooting? I’ve still not seen/heard about any charges or consequences for SFPD.
Verify then trust. Why does the SFPD consistently behave in an untrustworthy manner? Transparency, cooperation and accountability are all essential. SFPD tells us they can self investigate when episodes of excessive or lethal force arise. SFPD consistently asks for more tax payer money, yet they consistently fail to be transparent or accountable for their actions. This is not complicated. Numerous other California state police departments complied. Why not SFPD?
Sometimes I really question if SFPD is really much better than OPD, right across the Bay….., under federal oversight.
I’m really questioning.
The American Friends Service Committee should also demand that all criminals in San Francisco disclose their records on military-style weapons they own.
Certainly you hold the police to a higher standard than criminals. This a jarringly stupid comment. Please do better or find somewhere else to write on the wall.