Secrecy and criminality in the SFPD

Police Chief George Gascon proved he can get tough on parties, but can he get tough on problem officers under his command?
Charles Russo

Today’s Chronicle unveils more problems at the scandal-plagued San Francisco Police Department, as well as the District Attorney’s Office, raising new questions about their commitment to public accountability and protecting civil liberties at a time when the SFPD is seeking more authority and asking for the public’s trust.

At issue are police officers with criminal histories and disciplinary records serious enough to warrant disclosure to the criminal defendants that they testify against in court, which the story indicates is more than 80 officers. Such disclosures have been a standard requirement for almost 40 years, but neither police nor prosecutors in San Francisco have been making them, a revelation that could overturn hundreds of felony convictions because of this official misconduct, the Chron reports.

That bombshell comes in the wake the SFPD’s crime lab scandal, in which lab technician Deborah Madden – herself a court witness with a criminal history that should have been disclosed to defense attorneys – is suspected of regularly stealing from the seized narcotics that she tested.

The SFPD and its undercover party-busting cop Larry Bertrand are also accused of harassing nightclub owners and patrons, busting private parties using excessive force and warrantless raids, and illegally seizing computers and other personal items – all while publicly seeking to discredit the Entertainment Commission and seize its power to shut down nightlife in the city, as well as seeking greater authority to roust and threaten vagrants by proposing a law to ban sitting or lying on city sidewalks.

SFPD officials have repeatedly claimed the agency can be trusted not to abuse these new authorities, but the latest revelations about criminal cops highlights how difficult it is for the public or the press to keep tabs on the agency.

The Guardian today sent the SFPD a Sunshine Ordinance request for the names and violations of the officers in question, but if the past is a predicator, it’s likely to be denied with the claim that such records are exempt under the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, a state law with strict privacy protections for cops.

Even defense attorneys who have well-established rights to examine an arresting officer’s criminal and disciplinary histories through what’s known at Pitchess motions are routinely stonewalled by the SFPD, say defense attorneys. For example, attorneys for Arash Ghandan, an alleged victim of Bertrand’s brutality and retaliation, are now having a hard time getting information on the officer’s history. “We are in a battle for Bertrand’s personnel file,” Ghanadan’s attorney, Steve Sommers, told the Guardian. “The city of San Francisco just does not hand over documents without a fight.”

In 2006, former SDPD attorney Reno Rapagnani and his wife, former SFPD Sgt. Leanna Dawydiak, raised the issue of SFPD secrecy, its pattern of routinely shielding problem officers from discipline and public scrutiny, and retaliating against whistleblowers – and were then subjected to a witch hunt that forced them out of the department.

More recently, SFPD and its powerful Police Officers Association succeeded in watering down an early warning system for violence-prone officers, removing a number of triggers – such as resisting arrest and assault on a police officer charges that often accompany cases of abusive police conduct – that had been recommended by a police practices expert and which are currently used in San Jose and other cities. 

Meanwhile, District Attorney Kamala Harris, a candidate for California Attorney General, is also being criticized for the latest scandal. Under the Penal Code, she bears the responsibility for ensuring that her prosecutors are doing background checks on all witnesses and sharing that information with defense attorneys.

"Ultimately, the district attorney has to answer for this. It is the prosecution's duty to check the criminal backgrounds of officers called to testify. That never happened, and as a result, people have been denied fair trials,” Public Defender Jeff Adachi said in a press conference on the issue this morning.

The tough-on-crime era of the 1990s -- when politicians, police, and prosecutors did all they could to create new laws and enforcement powers – is over, and we have a severely overcrowded prison system to show for its short-sightedness. But that mentality continues to guide the SFPD.

Since the arrival of Police Chief George Gascon from Arizona last August, SFPD has undertaken a series of crackdowns, including hundreds of drug arrests in the Tenderloin, raids on marijuana-growing operations in the Sunset and parties in SoMa, citing Dolores Park-goers for drinking, and, on Friday, giving at least two Critical Mass bicyclists tickets for amplified music. He's also said he wants more power to discipline problem officers, but he has yet to show that's anything more than just talk.

Perhaps now it’s time for the pendulum to swing back in favor of restoring damaged civil rights and raising our expectations of the agencies that have such power over our daily lives and freedom. The SFPD should adequately police itself before it looks for new ways to police the rest of us.