Keep police discipline public


OPINION Three years after San Francisco voters passed Proposition H, the landmark police reform initiative, the San Francisco Police Commission finds itself at a crossroad. At the heart of the matter is how the commission deals with one of the worst decisions to come out of the California Supreme Court in recent memory, Copley Press v. Superior Court. In that decision the court held that records reutf8g to police officer disciplinary proceedings are confidential and not subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act.
Citing the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, the court even held that an officer's identity in disciplinary proceedings is confidential. How the Police Commission deals with this ruling will determine the level of openness with which the commission — and consequently, the Police Department — will conduct its business.
In turn, this may well determine the extent to which the promise of Proposition H — transparency and accountability for the police — will become a reality.
In an effort to protect transparency and accountability, the three undersigned police commissioners, as individuals, proposed what we believe is a commonsense approach to Copley: let's comply with Copley's requirement of confidentiality, but let's only be as confidential as the decision requires us to be. Stated differently, let's follow the law — but let's be as open as the law allows.
This is why we proposed a rather simple and measured idea — since Copley only requires the confidentiality of records in police disciplinary proceedings and since the state legislature never gave police officers the right to confidential settlements, why not continue to handle such settlements out in the open, the way they've been handled for 14 years without ever facing a legal challenge? To be sure that our idea would pass legal muster, we asked the City Attorney's Office to draft a resolution that would be legally viable and could survive legal challenge. That resolution was submitted for the public and the Police Commission's consideration last week.
One would think a resolution reflecting a tried-and-true process that was never challenged in more than a decade, a process carefully vetted with the city attorney, would satisfy even the strictest of legal constructionists. And yet, not surprisingly, the San Francisco Police Officers Association has come out against our proposal to openly handle settlements in police disciplinary cases. Without citing any legal authority, the POA argues that police officers have the right to settle disciplinary cases through backroom deals without ever revealing their identity or the terms of the deal to the public.
The POA's position seems to be shared by a number of other commissioners, and a counterresolution essentially changing how settlements are handled was recently introduced. Both our original resolution and the counterresolution are scheduled to be heard Nov. 15. Even though it's unclear which resolution will pass, we remain hopeful that the Police Commission will not grant police officers a right the legislature never bestowed on them — the right to cloak settlements in secrecy. This is especially true since several commissioners come from communities adversely impacted by police actions and have a long legacy in support of civil rights and public access.
Openness in the handling of settlements in police disciplinary hearings has been the norm in San Francisco for more than a decade. There is no reason to change course today. SFBG
David Campos, Petra de Jesus, and Theresa Sparks
David Campos, Petra de Jesus, and Theresa Sparks are members of the San Francisco Police Commission.