San Francisco Public Records Task Force Threatens PD With Sanctions For Dodging Records Requests
from the selective-enforcement,-selective-compliance dept
California legislators finally lifted the opacity shrouding police misconduct records in early 2019. The new law eliminated exemptions, making police misconduct and use-of-force records available to records requesters for the first time in decades.
Full grown adults clothed in uniforms and armed with guns reacted like children. They sued. They shredded records. They pretended they couldn’t understand the nuances of the new law. They stonewalled, foot-dragged, and otherwise did everything they could to avoid complying with records requests.
But these activities aren’t limited to misconduct records. The usual evasiveness and stonewalling is still present when records of any sort are being requested from agencies — in this case, the San Francisco Police Department — that really don’t feel like handing them over.
Because the most popular option is to just dick around until you get sued, the SFPD dragged out the EFF’s facial recognition tech records requests for months, forcing it to exit the purely civic arena and bring it to the attention of the city’s public records oversight.
Following San Francisco’s ban on the use of facial recognition tech (followed shortly thereafter by a statewide ban), the EFF submitted requests related to an apparent violation of the ban by the SFPD. The PD sent a photo of a criminal suspect to the federally operated Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), which then performed a search using its facial recognition software and forwarded those results to the PD.
The EFF asked for documents detailing this apparently illegal move by the SFPD — one that appeared to be an attempt to find a workaround that would allow it to technically abide by the ban while simultaneously violating the spirit of the law. EFF asked for 11 different categories of documents related to this incident, covering everything from SFPD communications to data-sharing agreements with the fusion center.
Despite seeking a time extension, SFPD provided only one document: an email statement to reporters regarding the incident in the Chronicle article. SFPD claimed some of the records were wholesale exempt because they were investigative. For the remaining items, SFPD claimed it could not locate any records, such as standard agreements that govern SFPD’s formal partnership with the fusion center.
The EFF then filed a complaint with the state’s Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. That prompted a bit more cooperation from the SFPD, which managed to find another 20 pages of emails and the bulletin it sent to the fusion center. But most of what the EFF requested still had yet to be turned over.
It took 18 months for the Task Force to take up the EFF’s complaint. When it finally had a chance to explain the SFPD’s ridiculous non-response, the EFF made it clear the PD was obviously doing whatever it could to avoid complying with its public records request.
As we told the task force: “It’s difficult to understand how SFPD could not find any information considering the city has two members of SFPD’s special investigations unit assigned to NCRIC and Chief [William] Scott is chair of the NCRIC executive board.” […] We also raised skepticism about SFPD’s claim that it could not find a single email discussing face recognition technology in the year and a half since the ban took effect.
The public records board apparently considered this a pretty persuasive argument. It’s not the SFPD that’s obligated to start doing things the right way. The Task Force ruled the PD violated multiple aspects of California’s public records laws. It gave the SFPD five days to comply with the EFF’s requests. And if it fails to do that, (unspecified) sanctions will be on the way.
This is also dangling over the PD’s head:
Initially, the Task Force voted to refer the matter to the San Francisco Ethics Commission for investigation of “willful failure” to comply with the law, a form of official misconduct. However, they rescinded that vote because it was unclear which official at SFPD should be named in the referral. Task Force members indicated that this option would remain available should SFPD fail to comply with its order.
It seems like this should properly motivate the SFPD to (nearly two years after the request was made) comply fully with the EFF’s request. And it puts the SFPD on the Task Force’s radar, which means it may move more quickly in the future if other requesters experience similar problems when dealing with this agency. Unfortunately, however this ends up resolving, it’s just more evidence showing our public servants rarely feel they’re obliged to serve the public.