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SFPD fails to comply with state law on use of military equipment

PIX Now - Noon 5/17/24
PIX Now - Noon 5/17/24 08:13

San Francisco's Police Department has failed to comply with a state law governing the use of military equipment, even though the law was written by its city attorney, David Chiu. 

The lack of compliance this week prompted two supervisors to call on the department to fulfill its legal obligations.

The law, AB 481, applies to all California police agencies. It was passed in February 2021, shortly after the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, leading millions of people to protest nationwide.

Written by Chiu while he was a state Assembly member, the law requires that police agencies submit an annual inventory of their military equipment, a term that encompasses 15 categories, including drones, robots, armored vehicles, tear gas and pepperballs. Departments must also hold a public meeting within 30 days of submitting the list, so that citizens can ask questions and comment on policing policies. 

When he proposed AB 481, Chiu connected it to the ways in which law enforcement responded to the Floyd protests. In some instances, protestors and journalists were seriously injured, and Chiu said he hoped the measure would help rebuild community trust in law enforcement by increasing oversight, transparency and giving "residents a voice" in how they are policed.

"When communities saw tear gas launched from military grade launchers and rubber bullets shot from behind armored vehicles at peaceful protestors, it really crystalized the trust challenges," Chiu was quoted as saying in March 2021. "Law enforcement should be viewed as our partners in public safety -- they're not military generals."

San Francisco was required to publish its report and submit it to the Board of Supervisors in January, but by mid May it still had not done so. 

In response to an inquiry, SFPD spokesperson Officer Robert Rueca said, "At this time we are unable to speak to the unforeseen delay," adding that the department "plans to submit the report to supervisors as soon as possible."

A spokesperson for the city attorney's office, Jen Kwart, said the police department has been unable to submit its report "due to staffing shortages," but that it "intends to submit the report to the Board of Supervisors as soon as possible." Kwart declined to comment further, stating that "any advice given" to SFPD "on this matter is confidential under attorney-client privilege."

On May 7, San Francisco District 5 Supervisor Dean Preston sent SFPD Chief William Scott a letter of inquiry asking why the department had not yet submitted its report, when it planned to release it, and when it planned to hold its required public community engagement meeting. The letter stated that the department has not provided "any estimated timeframe for its compliance" with AB 481 "despite my office's repeated requests for information about the status of the report." Emails show that Melissa Hernandez, a legislative aide for Preston, began requesting the report from SFPD in mid-February.

Preston said the law is "demonstrably important to San Franciscans," as a previous SFPD report under AB 481 led "hundreds of San Franciscans to express their disapproval of SFPD's now-tabled proposal to have killer robots."

In December of 2022, and following the public outcry over the proposal, San Francisco supervisors rejected and banned plans to use the robots.

District 4 Supervisor Joel Engardio said "the SFPD report was due in January and is late. Transparency is important and the report should be filed. The public has a right to know how local police use military equipment."

Nine other supervisors either failed to respond or said through staff members that they had no comment at this time.

SFPD is not the only Bay Area law enforcement department that is out of compliance with AB 481. The San Jose Police Department has not published any of its annual military equipment reports on its website, as required by law, since having its military equipment use policy approved in June 2022. Despite this, San Jose's city council approved San Jose Police's acquisition of new military equipment in November of last year. In the North Bay, the Vallejo Police Department only started fulfilling AB 481's requirements in April, roughly two years later than was legally required, after receiving a media inquiry about the matter. The Contra Costa and Solano County sheriff offices have also not published annual reports covering 2023.

John Lindsey-Poland, co-director of the California Healing Justice Program of the American Friends Service Committee, advocated for AB 481's passage and has been monitoring compliance with it. While approving the law in general, he also feels it has "significant limitations" since "there are no real ways to address violations of the law." The text of AB 481 has no penalties in place for law enforcement turning in annual reports late, or not turning them in at all.

Many Bay Area law enforcement agencies, however, are following the law. While the police departments of the two most populated Bay Area cities, San Francisco and San Jose, are out of compliance with filing of their annual reports, the police departments of the next three most populated cities, Oakland, Fremont and Santa Rosa, are all in compliance.

And of the nine Bay Area county sheriff departments, seven have fulfilled AB 481's requirement of releasing military equipment reports, including San Francisco's sheriff office. 

Lindsey-Poland said that "the sheriff's office in general is more engaged and more interested in being accountable than SFPD," because the Sheriff's Office solicited advice from The American Friends Service committee while crafting military use police, while SFPD has been "closed to any communications."

Preston said he thinks transparency laws like AB 481 are important, "but they are only effective when agencies follow the law."

Zach Haber contributed to this report.

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