Arts and Entertainment
IN THE OLD days, any reporter who covered the crime and cops beat knew that the first thing you asked for after any arrest or shooting or gruesome murder or simple car accident was a copy of the police report. The cops always gave you that after all, it was just their side of the story, the narrative that the officers arriving on the scene put together.
In a lot of cities that still happens but not in San Francisco. Here, the Police Department routinely denies reporters and the public access to police reports particularly if the incident involves a police officer doing something that might not be entirely proper.
In the case of the Idriss Stelley shooting (see "The Tragedy of Idriss Stelley," page 16), the SFPD won't release much of anything at all even the routine information that must, by law, be made available in other crime reports (the names of the responding officers, for example) has been tightly controlled.
And it gets worse: police officials even tried to prevent us from getting something that is, under the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance and the California Public Records Act, automatically public record: the tape of the 911 calls that came in to central dispatch on the day of the shooting. There is, it turns out, crucial information on that tape: the recording shows that Stelley's girlfriend warned the cops on the scene that Stelley had mental health problems and should be approached carefully. But neither Stelley's family and lawyers nor the local news media have been able to listen; the SFPD insisted that the tape was part of an "ongoing investigation" (which is silly; there's nothing on it that could jeopardize the investigation).
After the cops gave that nonsensical story to our reporter, A.C. Thompson, I called our lawyer, Thomas Burke of Davis, Wright, Tremaine, and he started making calls to SFPD public affairs and then to the City Attorney's Office. He's an expert in public-records law, and he finally managed to shake the information loose.
But you shouldn't have to hire a lawyer to get this sort of basic information out of the local police department. Anyone should be able to get it, the day he or she asks. All this pointless secrecy just raises another question: What else is the SFPD trying to cover up?