Bad cops walk into the shadows

A state Supreme Court ruling keeps the public from accessing records of police misconduct
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gwschulz@sfbg.com
In late June, two San Francisco police officers were accused of giving beer and vodka to three teenage girls and making sexual advances toward them. One of the young women was just 16 years old, and the two others were 17. The alleged conduct of the officers occurred both in and out of uniform, and they even reportedly offered the girls confiscated fireworks from the trunk of their patrol car.
In February, an off-duty San Francisco Police Department officer was arrested for threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend and their 5-year-old daughter during a domestic quarrel. The officer was awaiting disciplinary hearings before the San Francisco Police Commission, according to the most recent public records of the matter.
In March 2005, an SFPD domestic violence inspector was arrested for driving drunk through Marin County and smashing into another car. Fairfax cops found the inspector had a blood alcohol level of 0.27 percent, more than three times the legal limit. She was eventually suspended by the SFPD for 45 days.
These are just a few cases of alleged misconduct that have recently appeared before the Police Commission. And they're among the last cases, which until now were available through state open-record laws, that most people will ever know details about. Due to a state Supreme Court ruling issued at the end of August, citizens and the press will be unable to access most public information about why individual officers are charged with vioutf8g department rules or even possibly breaking the law.
"It's devastating," said Rick McKee, a longtime open-government activist and president of the Sacramento-based group Californians Aware. "It creates a two-tiered system of public access: one for general government employees and another for police officers.... There was no considerable thought given to what this does to the public's right to know."
Records of misconduct charges have largely been open in San Francisco until now. The public could access summaries of misconduct charges, filed either by the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) or the police chief's office, and attend hearings at the Hall of Justice that included testimony from the officers. No longer.
An attempt by the Guardian last week to obtain misconduct records from the Police Commission was blocked by administrative staff, and two disciplinary hearings scheduled for Sept. 6 and 7, ordinarily open to the public, were cancelled due to uncertainty surrounding the decision in Copley Press v. San Diego County.
Historically, the names of officers investigated by the OCC and charged with misconduct by the chief were not revealed publicly until their cases had made it to the commission, which is where the Guardian has obtained them in the past. In other words, frivolous charges of police brutality, for instance, weren't immediately disclosed to the public. Personnel files maintained by the department could remain secret, but cities and counties individually decided what independent review commissions could make available.
The Aug. 31 Supreme Court ruling greatly broadens the scope of privacy laws that exclusively protect cops from the disclosure of disciplinary records maintained by police departments.

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