Police-records legislation on its way to state Assembly just as SFPD officer is charged with lewd act

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By G.W. Schulz

UPDATE! Here's an SB 1019 alert from the Northern California ACLU.

Have you caught up with this week’s lurid law-enforcement story involving an SFPD officer facing criminal charges in the East Bay for sleeping with a 14-year-old prostitute? Scaaaaaaandalous.

If formal criminal charges had never been brought against the 37-year department veteran and he merely faced internal disciplinary proceedings for having sex with an underage girl in his car, there’s a chance you never would have learned about it. The state Supreme Court in a now-infamous decision handed down last year blocked the public from being able to access police disciplinary records.

If police hadn’t discovered the two in Sgt. Donald Forte's civilian car at the dead end of an East Oakland street and the lewd act had simply been reported by a colleague internally, how else could the public have ever learned that a police officer had allegedly committed statutory rape?

Outside of a possible leak, the public may never have known a thing.

Two stories we published this week were also affected by that Supreme Court decision. Our story on three sheriff’s deputies in San Francisco accused in federal court by former county-jail inmates of assaulting them was limited in part because some personnel records generated in the case were designated confidential by a judge, so we couldn’t look at them.

woodfox1.jpg
Mack Woodfox alleges he was beat while in custody

In another brief story from this week, we explained that a federal judge has allowed the city to seal records related to its investigation of an unarmed man shot and killed by San Francisco police officers last summer. That court order will also make confidential any personnel records that surface during discovery in the case, which began last year when the man’s family decided to sue the city. Asa Sullivan was shot 16 times, but police later insisted that an eyeglasses case he was purportedly holding at first appeared to be a gun.

Why does any of this matter?

Word just arrived that the state Assembly’s Public Safety Committee will be hearing Senate Bill 1019 June 26. SB 1019 would again allow individual cities in California to decide for themselves how much access the public should have to police-personnel records. And considering the San Francisco Police Commission and the Board of Supervisors support the bill, its passage would mean citizens here could again access those records, as they could before the Supreme Court’s decision. The bill has already passed the Senate 22-11.

We should note here that allegations of misconduct didn’t officially enter the public realm until the police chief, the commission or the Office of Citizen Complaints had a chance to review them, so potentially baseless charges wouldn’t immediately make it into headlines.

Everybody’s endorsing 1019. The Chronicle. The LA Times. The San Jose Mercury News. The Oakland Tribune (accessing their archives is a pain in the ass; thanks MediaNews). The current and former police chiefs of Los Angeles. Leland Yee. Carole Migden. Mark Leno. The Guardian (but you saw that coming). Even San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey.

But all of this isn’t enough. California’s always powerful law-enforcement lobby is mostly opposed to the bill, and they’ve turned nasty in their attempts to stop it by threatening some of the most powerful politicos in Sacramento that they’ll pull their support for other bills if 1019 sails to victory.

So, guess who sits on the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee? Our very own Fiona Ma, who ascended to the District 12 seat after a stint on the Board of Supervisors. She hasn't taken a position on the issue yet and doesn't plan to until after next week's hearing, an aide insisted to us. Christ knows where Mayor Newsom is on the issue. He's hardly said a thing on it.

If you saw the Supreme Court’s original, convoluted analysis of state law regarding the right of police officers to keep details of their conduct secret, you’d see why the decision has been nothing but a mess, and 1019 would clear away much of the confusion. Give it a read, if you’ve got a minute. Or an entire evening. That’s what it took us to figure out what the hell the justices were talking about. Or just read the lone dissenting opinion. It makes a helluva lot more sense.

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