S.F. Public Defender’s Office launches website for searching cop records

The San Francisco Public Defender’s Office on Wednesday launched a new website where members of the public can search for police records of misconduct, shootings, civil suits and certain officer complaints.

The tool, believed to be among the first in the country, comes less than two years after landmark California bill cracked open many police files for the first time, lifting the curtain on what had been decades of secrecy surrounding police personnel documents. Beginning in 2019, records on police uses of force and certain bad behavior became available to anyone with the know-how to request them, and the months — or years — to wait out their return.

The website, called CopWatch, is meant to act as a a clearinghouse for public information about San Francisco’s law enforcement agencies.

“This database really comes out of our core work,” Public Defender Mano Raju told The Chronicle Tuesday, the day before CopWatch’s planned public launch. “We … have a responsibility to review available records in advocating for our clients.”

Criminal defense attorneys rely on police records to scrutinize the credibility of police officers and other wittnesses testifying against their clients. But even when such records are supposed to be public, unearthing them them can take considerable digging and time.

“So once the information is actually available and public, we certainly want at least that to be accessible to people,” Raju said.

CopWatch is described as a “living database” that will be routinely updated when more information becomes available. The database currently holds records from 416 sworn officers in San Francisco, 377 with the San Francisco Police Department. The others are employed with the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department, BART Police, California Highway Patrol and the District Attorney’s Office.

The site is largely populated with information made available by Senate Bill 1421, the new police transparency law that makes public certain officer records involving serious uses of force and “sustained allegations” of sexual assault or dishonesty.

Other records include civil suit documents, complaints filed by public defenders with the city’s Department of Police Accountability, criminal records and media coverage. No other public-facing search tool compiles all of these records in one place, the Public Defender’s Office said.

The database includes only a fraction of the cops in San Francisco, since only those with publicly available records will be listed. It’s also not exhaustive: Officials with the Public Defender’s Office said they are still waiting on several records to be released.

CopWatch is the creation of the Public Defender’s Office’s one-year-old Integrity Unit, which also focuses on post-conviction relief work like resentencing and reduced sentencing.

Danielle Harris, who leads the unit, public defenders over the past few years had been trying to compile the information they found over the course of their cases, so they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel every time.

“And then at some point, very much more recenty, we realized ‘well, we’re not the only ones who need this,’” she said.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, the author of SB 1421, praised the database and what she called an easy-to-use format.

“Transparency builds trust between the public and police,” she said in a statement. “My office is committed to expanding public access to law enforcement records and to building the trust that public safety in every community relies on.”

The site could benefit other, private defense attorneys, journalists, activists, victims of police misconduct and people accused of a crime, Harris said. The hope is that it will also make people feel empowered to report a complaint if they feel they’ve been mistreated by an officer.

CopWatch is believed to be among the first of its kind in the nation, but there are likely more in the works. Raju said several other public defenders around the state are excited about the idea.

“The public thirst for more information about the folks who are armed presences in our streets has reached a near breaking point,” Harris said. “And that is why we’re finally, finally, having some of the confidentiality removed.”

Megan Cassidy is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @meganrcassidy

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