Fiona Ma Fails to Move Police Accountability Bill

On June 26th, the State Assembly Public Safety Committee, on which San Francisco member Fiona Ma serves, remained silent in the face of police union pressure to keep secret information regarding officer misconduct. Despite extensive testimony by State Senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), Newark Police Chief Ray Samuels, Director of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office of Independent Review Michael Gennaco, and police misconduct victims – including legendary UFW activist Dolores Huerta – the members of the Public Safety Committee refused to even move Senate Bill 1019 for a vote, let alone pass this critical piece of legislation to restore public access to police misconduct records and hearings.

San Franciscans have repeatedly affirmed a strong commitment to citizen oversight of police misconduct. From the creation of the Office of Citizen Complaints by voter initiative in 1983 to the expansion of its authority via passage of Proposition H in 2003, San Franciscans have consistently voted to support greater police oversight and transparency. But with the August 2006 California Supreme Court decision in Copley Press v. Superior Court, doors across the state slammed shut on public access to police records and oversight hearings. As a result, San Francisco Police Commission hearings and records relating to misconduct are now secret.

SB 1019, authored by State Senator Gloria Romero, would overturn the Copley Press decision and allow San Francisco and cities and counties throughout the state to re-open access to records related to police misconduct complaints.

The bulk of San Francisco’s police officers do admirable work, often under difficult conditions. When officers violate the law or department policies and engage in serious misconduct, however, the public should have a right to know. Police misconduct – and allegations of police misconduct – undermine public trust in the police and ultimately make it more difficult for police to do their job. Where trust is lacking, members of the public are hesitant to come forward with important information.

The recent coverage in the San Francisco Chronicle on use of force by San Francisco police officers highlights the need for greater openness. The Chronicle reported on the use of force by officers between 1996 and 2004, finding that Officer Jesse Serna used force more than any other member of the Police Department. In the last nine months, four tort claims or lawsuits were filed against the city based on his conduct. Three earlier lawsuits alleging excessive force by Serna cost San Francisco taxpayers $195,000.

While we may learn the outcomes of those cases, under the post-Copley Press regime, we will not learn if citizen complaints were filed based on his conduct with the Office of Citizen Complaints or whether any disciplinary action was taken by the Police Commission. We may learn if the city pays out money based on the lawsuits, but not whether the officer was dismissed, suspended, or went unpunished. This irrational state of affairs leaves the public in the dark as to whether misconduct is being taken seriously by the Department. It likewise leaves a cloud of suspicion over officers who may be charged but ultimately exonerated, as the public cannot obtain that information.

The antidote is transparency, not secrecy. But if the police unions have their way, openness will not be had. A couple of unions recently threatened to scuttle term limit reform – a wholly unrelated matter – if SB 1019 passes. At the hearing on Tuesday, over 100 police union representatives from throughout the state pressured the committee to oppose SB 1019, telling members that if it passed, police and their families would somehow be endangered.

Committee members, including San Francisco’s Fiona Ma, completely failed to challenge them on this claim. In 30 years of public oversight in California, not one police officer has been physically harmed as a result of information disclosed in police misconduct hearings. The vast majority of states have greater public access than California without incident, yet the committee members allowed the police unions to repeat their claims as fact.

San Francisco leaders from across the spectrum have already endorsed SB 1019, including Assembly Member Mark Leno, Senators Leland Yee and Carole Migden, Sheriff Michael Hennessey, Public Defender Jeff Adachi, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, and a unanimous San Francisco Police Commission. But Assembly Member Fiona Ma would not even move the bill for a vote.

Senator Romero has asked for a vote on the bill July 3, but Chairman Jose Solorio is refusing a hearing on the bill. You can tell Assembly Member Ma to favor the interests of the public over the interests of the police union lobby, support SB 1019, and demand Chairman Solorio schedule a vote by calling her office at (916) 319-2012. Together we can work to restore police oversight in San Francisco and throughout the state.

Emmy Rhine is a Police Practices Policy Intern with the ACLU of Northern California and can be contacted at erhine@aclunc.org