Onek to SFPD Chief turned D.A. Gascon: release records of officers cleared in shootings

Candidates who have filed in D.A.'s race so far:clockwise from top left: Paul Henderson, David Onek, George Gascon, Sharmin Bock
Ben Hopfer

Calitics has a revealing letter from David Onek, a senior fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, a former member of the San Francisco Police Commission and a candidate in the 2011 District Attorney’s race, demanding greater transparency from the D.A.’s office when it comes to explaining why officers have been cleared in officer-related shootings.

“After spending my career working to identify and implement the most effective public safety strategies, I have seen one constant – the community is safest when the police and prosecutors earn and keep the public’s trust,” Onek writes in a letter that is guaranteed to turn up the ante in an already intriguing race. “That’s why I read with real concern that the San Francisco District Attorney’s office would not produce reports related to officer-involved shootings pursuant to a recent public records request from NPR-affiliate KALW.”

(The KALW report shows that the person in the D.A.’s office who penned the letter denying its request for records was Paul Henderson, D.A. Kamala Harris’ chief of staff and her preferred pick as replacement D.A. before Gavin Newsom appointed former SFPD Chief George Gascón as his last act as mayor, shocking just about everyone except Willie Brown, especially when it came out that Gascón used to be a Republican and is not philosophically opposed to the death penalty. And while Gascón, who was registered in recent years as decline-to-state, promptly turned around and registered as a Democrat, he also filed papers in the D.A.’s race that cite the phone number of notorious campaign attorney Jim Sutton.)

In his post on Calitics, Onek notes that as a former Police Commissioner, he was briefed in closed session on the details of officer-involved shootings, and he often heard complaints from community members about how little public information was released about officer-involved shootings.
“This lack of transparency breeds distrust,” Onek observes.

Onek acknowledges that in all officer-involved shootings, the DA’s office conducts an independent review to determine if there is criminal liability, and that if such liability is found, the DA presses charges, which are public. “But when the DA determines that there is no liability, it is equally important that the DA publicly explain the reasons for its decision,” Onek states.

In short, he believes the D.A.’ office should issue a very detailed report on every officer-involved shooting in which it does not file charges and should make the report publicly available on its website. “The report should detail the facts, the law and the reasons for the decision not to file charges,” Onek says, arguing that complete transparency would make the job of police and prosecutors much easier by building trust between law enforcement and the community, making it more likely that community members will work in partnership with police and prosecutors, and that victims and witnesses will come forward to testify.

“Publishing detailed reports that clear officers when they acted within the law can dispel public misconceptions about what actually happened," Onek concludes. "Of course, officers’ privacy rights need to be respected and investigations cannot be compromised. But once an investigation is complete, and an officer has been cleared, it is imperative that the District Attorney’s office share its findings with the public. “

And as Onek points out, this standard is already in place in communities in California. “The District Attorney’s office in San Diego, hardly a bastion of liberalism, actually lists these cases on its website,” Onek states. “Many other counties – including Los Angeles, Orange and Fresno – also make them matters of public record and available on request. Building trust with the community is the key to enhancing public safety. Let’s not violate that trust by refusing to release documents that the public has the right to see.”

I’ve got a call into D.A. Gascón’s office to learn more about the rationale for denying KALW’s request, and I’ll be sure to post his reply here, so stay tuned.