SFPD’s Handling of Private Information Under Scrutiny

Personal information leaked in the wake of Jeff Adachi's death was the final straw for city supervisors, who are demanding a hearing on SFPD's privacy policies.

SFPD patrols U.N. Plaza on Feb. 19, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume)

The leak of private information surrounding Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s death caused a rash of speculation, gossip, and questionable media coverage that, for a couple days, threatened to overshadow the work of San Francisco’s longtime advocate. Luckily, much of the speculation appears to have been quashed — for now — so that the city could return to its grieving. But the disclosure of details surrounding Adachi’s death to the media, presumably by members of the San Francisco Police Department, has drawn the ire of many in City Hall.

“I am outraged by what appears to be leaked information to the press surrounding the tragic death of our friend and colleague Public Defender Jeff Adachi,” Supervisor Sandra Lee Fewer stated on Tuesday afternoon. “But I have to say, my frustration about this issue extends far beyond this particular case.”

SFPD doesn’t have a great track record on preserving peoples’ privacy — last year, a member of the Police Officers Association made headlines when he displayed a person’s confidential rap sheet publicly during a community meeting, violating state law. 

“We have seen an increasing practice of particular stations posting mug shots of arrestees on social media,” Fewer added, no doubt referencing the Tenderloin Police Station’s practice of publishing mug shots of people they’ve arrested on Twitter — regardless of whether or not they were eventually charged with a crime. 

To be fair, it’s not exactly clear if the latter is a violation of peoples’ human rights — but that lack of understanding is central to the hearing Fewer and Supervisor Hillary Ronen called for Tuesday. 

“What are the departmental general orders governing the release of private information?” Fewer asked. “Who has access to sensitive, private information? What is the protocol for what information can be made public, and by whom? What is the accountability mechanism within the department if staff are found to have released private information in violation of departmental general orders or in violation of state law? 

“This is not just an issue with high profile cases but this is really about trust, and whether members of the public can trust that they and their loved ones are not being exposed to an unwarranted invasion of privacy or confidential information, whether as a suspect, a victim or an informant,” she added.

Every member of the Board of Supervisors cosponsored this hearing — with the exception of Supervisor Catherine Stefani, who the POA endorsed in her recent race for supervisor. A date has yet to be set. 

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