S.F. Could Expand Rights of Minors Questioned by Police

Police questioning of Balboa High School students after a gun was fired on campus exposed a lack of protections for 16 and 17-year-olds.

Parents wait for their children to be released after a report of a shooting at Balboa High School on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco could soon bridge gaps in protections for minors questioned by police laid bare in the aftermath of a gun incident at Balboa High School.

State law requires minors 15 years of age or younger to consult with a lawyer or guardian before a police interrogation or waiving Miranda rights. But that leaves out 16 and 17-year-olds who are still vulnerable to a developing brain, especially in the face of authority.

To expand that state protection to minors, Supervisor Hillary Ronen introduced legislation on Tuesday that would prohibit San Francisco police from questioning someone 17 years old or younger before speaking with a public defender. This must also happen before the ability to waive Miranda rights and parents or guardians must be allowed immediate access to the minor during the interrogation.

“I don’t understand why it’s different,” Ronen said before police at a hearing in November. “I don’t think 16 and 17-year-olds can fully understand the context.”

The legislation comes after police arrested three students who were ultimately not charged in response to a gun firing inside a Balboa High School classroom in August. Just one student was charged with possession and negligent discharge but the other students were needlessly traumatized, community advocates said.

Youth policing was called into question at a November hearing Ronen had called after hearing from the father of one of the arrested students. Despite being on campus during the lockdown, school district employee Robert Pena said he was unaware his 17-year-old son was detained for about 45 minutes.

When police transported his son to the station for questioning, they did so in full view of a crowd and the press before it was determined he was not involved in the incident. A conversation not related to the incident that took place between an officer at the station and the student with Pena away would also be prohibited before legal counsel under the proposed legislation.

San Francisco Unified School District has its own policies regarding interactions with police that will go untouched by this legislation. But the Memorandum of Understanding that outlines procedures — which Pena said were not followed — coincidentally expires in January and following changes could complement Ronen’s proposal.

Before dozens took to public comment to criticize the criminalization of students of color that caused trauma, Police Cmdr. David Lazar told Ronen at the hearing that he felt officers did a great job in working with the school district. He later reiterated that they were proud but that they could always assess how to do things better.

“They were high-fiving each other, congratulating each other on the work that they had done,” Pena said about police at the hearing. “Please review the policies.”

With this strong of a nudge, police can hardly decline.

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