San Francisco District Attorney’s Office Must be Transparent in Officer-Involved 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.

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.

As a former Police Commissioner, I have been briefed in closed session on the details of officer-involved shootings. But the public knows very little about these incidents. My fellow Commissioners and I often heard complaints from community members about how little public information was released about officer-involved shootings. This lack of transparency breeds distrust.

In all officer-involved shootings, the DA’s office conducts an independent review to determine if there is criminal liability. 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.

As such, the District Attorney’s 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.

This kind of complete transparency will make the job of our 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.

San Francisco is lucky that we are served by rank and file police officers who are second to none. Publishing detailed reports that clear officers when they acted within the law can dispel public misconceptions about what actually happened.

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.

This is the standard that is already being applied in communities throughout California. The District Attorney’s office in San Diego, hardly a bastion of liberalism, actually lists these cases on its website. 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.

David Onek is a Senior Fellow at the Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice, former Commissioner on the San Francisco Police Commission and candidate for San Francisco District Attorney.