Death and Access

When police officers and death coincide, the public has a right to the official record of the event

There was once an excitable man I'll call John who very much wanted a blender. John went to the Mervyn's department store at Geary and Masonic early last week, picked one up, and headed out the door, yelling that he would shank whoever tried to stop him. But John never got farther than the parking lot. A guard chased John and tackled all 6 feet 3 inches and 250 pounds of him to the ground. Three more guards piled on. John bit one of them on the ankle and wouldn't let go. So all the guards pushed and pummeled John until they knocked their colleague free from John's toothy grip. They wrestled John back inside the building, and later called the police. Some time afterward John died while lying handcuffed on the pavement.

And that is as much of this story as I can confidently tell. In a type of apparent violation of official San Francisco Police Department policy that may have become routine, S.F. police won't release their reports on the death.

Officers have told the San Francisco Medical Examiner's Office to withhold all information regarding the cause of death of this particular John Doe. The SFPD has also refused to release the incident report written by the officers who were there.

On its face, this suppression seems to violate the department's own policy regarding records.

Official department policy says officers must release incident reports unless the information contained would "endanger citizens, law enforcement personnel, or a law enforcement investigation." According to the policy, "In all cases, the burden is on the department to justify nondisclosure."

The Mervyn's case doesn't seem to fit these criteria in the slightest. Neither law enforcement officers nor their investigation seems imperiled here. Witnesses aren't in apparent danger; the violent shoplifter is, after all, dead. I'm aware of no threat facing law enforcement in connection with this incident. And public awareness of this event presents no practical impediment I'm aware of to the investigation. In fact, a police spokesman failed to provide any convincing specific rationale for not releasing the reports.

Just as with the case of Idriss Stelley, the Bayview youth who was gunned down in a 21-shot police fusillade at the Metreon movie theater earlier this year, the department appears to be abusing its secrecy policy to keep embarrassing information away from the news media, and with some success: The Mervyn's police custody death received no press coverage.

In the Stelley case, I didn't receive a coroner's report until November, some five months after the autopsy was completed. The report shows that police shot Stelley, an A student who freaked out while watching a movie, in the head, chest, foot, shoulder, calf, bicep, forearm, and buttocks. Still, by feeding reporters information of their choosing while suppressing official documentation for an absurd amount of time, police saw to it that this story received scant press coverage.

It is unclear how many cases the SFPD keeps secret, at least for a time, by refusing to release records that should rightfully be made public almost immediately. I asked an official with the Medical Examiner's Office whether the secrecy surrounding the Mervyn's case is unusual. He told me it is, on the contrary, common.

Police PR preferences notwithstanding, the people of San Francisco should certainly want greater access to information on police-related incidents, because such access has a consistently salutary effect on law enforcement. When the New York Timesbroke Frank Serpico's revelation of police misconduct in the 1960s, then-Mayor John Lindsay was compelled to create an independent committee to investigate police corruption.

In Los Angeles, publicity surrounding the Rampart Station scandal, in which officers were accused of beating, framing, and shooting innocent people, resulted in a federal consent decree that now guides police reform efforts.

In San Francisco, there have been no widely publicized police scandals. But this doesn't mean there aren't allegations (or a reality) of police misconduct. It just means the press has been kept away from such allegations. I asked the City Attorney's Office last week how much money the City and County of San Francisco spends on settlements of claims and lawsuits filed by citizens alleging police abuse, and didn't receive a response as of this week. But a couple of anecdotes from people who complained of police abuse to the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights during the past few weeks suggest San Francisco's finest sometimes step over the line.

There's the case of John Malcom, a 45-year-old disabled citizen who couldn't sleep last month because of his neighbors' loud quarreling.

"I hear the window break. She pushed him into the window. I go downstairs, and say, "Call the police,'" Malcom says. "I open the door, I was going to explain to them what happened, when the one officer put his foot in the door; he said, "Let me in.' I said, "No, you don't have to come in my room.' They both knock the door open, they push me down, and they start pounding me. They were hitting me with their fists. One was grabbing his stick. I was saying, "What are you all doing? What are you all doing?' One of them had taken his billy stick and pounded me in the head and knocked me unconscious. I come to, they're about to put the handcuffs on me, and they're dragging me out, and the manager says, "You've got the wrong person.'"

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