The San Francisco’s Police Commission on Wednesday updated the city’s more-than-25-year-old search warrant policy, adding what it called “critical safeguards,” but stopping short of outright bans on controversial practices, such as no-knock warrants.
The policy, which has been in negotiations for the past year and a half, allows police officers to execute a search warrant without knocking first, if there is reason to believe there is an “imminent threat of physical violence” to the officers or the public. No-knock warrants would be served by the tactical unit and require an assistant chief and a judge to sign off, but the policy also lets officers make an on-the-scene judgment not to knock if they believe such a threat exists.
No-knock warrants have received intense scrutiny in recent years since the high-profile killings of Breonna Taylor and Amir Locke, both unsuspecting and unaffiliated victims of no-knock searches. A few jurisdictions have banned no-knock search warrants altogether, including Florida, Virginia, and Oregon.
“The policy is not perfect, and indeed, not every stakeholder got what they wanted, as angry emails and texts and phone calls I’ve had will show,” said commissioner Kevin Benedicto at Wednesday’s meeting. “But I think it’s, in some ways, that’s the hallmark of a good negotiation and of a productive process.”
The seven commissioners voted unanimously to approve the new policy. Next, the document will go through an approval process with labor negotiators.
Although the police chief and the director of the Department of Police Accountability recognized the Public Defender’s Office role in developing the policy, deputy public defender Brian Cox, who had spoken out against no-knock warrants in 2021, said the office has “not been engaged since it became clear that there was no momentum to remove, among other items of concern, the no-knock provision from the policy.”
He acknowledged some improvements since the last draft policy was presented to the public in September, 2021, including additional restriction of no-knock warrants.
An earlier draft of San Francisco’s search warrant policy, which has not been updated since 1997, was last brought before the commission for approval in September, 2021. At the time, commissioners tabled the policy amid protests from the Public Defender’s office and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California against the no-knock provision, and concerns that the policy was being fast-tracked without enough public input.
Although some of those concerns still exist, on Wednesday evening, commissioners passed the policy with no debate. Unusually for what was once a hot-button issue, no one offered public comment on the agenda item.
The new policy attempts to limit searches at locations where only youth are present, but still allows for cases where police may conduct a search when no adults are present. It also recommends that police consult with the District Attorney’s office on search warrants, and requires this consultation when conducting a search of a particular place.
Privacy concerns about “geofence” warrants, which allow police to track all mobile devices within a general area, were limited with “strict and narrow” allowances for these searches, Benedicto said at Wednesday’s meeting. He noted that few other jurisdictions have taken action to limit those searches.
Benedicto was appointed to the oversight body in early 2022, and was the commissioner assigned to oversee the policy negotiations since then. He called the new policy “tremendously improved.”
Additions to the new policy:
- Geofence warrants limited
- Youth presence considered
- No-knock warrants limited
- District Attorney consultation recommended or required
He said that the Department of Police Accountability and the police department agreed on about 90 percent of the draft, and had come to an eleventh-hour compromise just the day before on remaining differences.
“They said it would be two weeks, originally,” said Benedicto, adding that there was no “idle time,” since the policy was tabled in 2021 and that more than 60 recommendations were considered; some were adopted, while others were not.
Benedicto previously worked on the other side of the bargaining table for the San Francisco Bar Association, which has also been negotiating on the policy with the police department since it was last before the commission in 2021.
Commission president Cindy Elias, who commended Benedicto’s ability to “herd cats” and build consensus within a divided group, said the policy was in limbo for a long time.
But, as recently as this week, deputy public defender Cox told Mission Local that the process was had still not included enough public input. He compared the process to the pretext stop policy passed earlier this year, which had a robust engagement with members of the public and various communities.
Benedicto told Mission Local that stakeholders, including the Public Defender’s office, the Bar Association and the District Attorney’s office, had a voice in the process, and that he was pleased with the outcome. He acknowledged that this policy was “more informal,” and did not have the same community input as other policies had.
Leadership of policy revisions by the SFPD, instead of the commission, Cox suggested, could be to blame for limited public input.
“I think that lack of openness, coupled with how dangerous execution of no-knock warrants can be underscores the need to have the Commission lead the DGO’s revision process,” Cox wrote in an email, “to bring more voices to the table and create policies that consider, among other things, the harms SFPD causes.”