The threats that survivors of domestic violence face last long after that first 911 call. In efforts to escape dangerous relationships, they may be uprooted from their homes, have to make alternate living arrangements for their children, or secure a restraining order to prevent their abusers from repeating — and often escalating — the violence.
But in order to work within a system that is meant to protect them, many survivors have to obtain copies of police reports, which serve as evidence of the abuse. Without it, a housing transfer may be delayed or denied when time is of the essence. Judges may not be persuaded to grant a request for restraining orders. Updated visitation requirements may be insufficiently restrictive for the abusers if the parties involved share children. This can put survivors at risk of another attack, fatal or otherwise.
This is why, since 1999, police statewide have been required to release reports of domestic violence to survivors within five days — or 10, with good cause. Where other law enforcement agencies statewide put Section 6228 of the California Family Code into practice, the San Francisco Police Department has a track record of delaying the release of reports to domestic-violence survivors — if not denying the release outright.
Their advocates have had enough. Earlier this month, Bay Area Legal Aid filed a lawsuit to compel SFPD into compliance with the law.
The suit estimates that it takes San Francisco police an average of 50 days to release the incident reports. In one case, a survivor has been waiting more than 400 days (and counting) for theirs.
“They never devised a procedure,” says Jeanne Finberg, who filed the lawsuit with the nonprofit as pro bono counsel. “San Francisco usually, I would think, does better by domestic-violence victims. I have no explanation for it.”
Finberg and Bay Area Legal Aid attorney Fawn Jade Korr tried to work with SFPD to bring them into compliance. For years, they have seen client after client hit a legal roadblock while recovering from a horrific chapter of their lives. All throughout, they’ve called on police to issue reports when survivors need them — not when officials get around to it.
The two wrote City Attorney Dennis Herrera in March 2018 with these concerns, citing the more than 20 reports they’ve requested over a two-year span that were not returned within the required time period. Police Chief Bill Scott assured Korr and Finberg that the department would come into compliance by the end of July 2018 and asked that they abstain from filing a lawsuit. By that September, receiving reports was still difficult and the two said they attempted to check on SFPD’s progress but were met with silence.
Finberg and Korr took the issue to the Police Commission in December, and Commissioners Petra De Jesus and John Hamasaki led calls to resolve the issue. A working group filled with officials from SFPD, the Police Commission, and experts like Beverly Upton of the Domestic Violence Consortium seemed to make progress during its three meetings in January and March.
“SFPD seemed to take this very seriously,” Upton says. “We all get used to how things are. I think it takes these great young advocates and attorneys to remind us that survivors need more than you’re getting.”
But the process seemed to stall, and they were still left in the dark about what was being done, save for some vague promises about new protocols, training, and a new system. On May 6, they finally filed a suit.
“I believe they just haven’t prioritized it,” Korr says. “If a community of advocates and the Police Commission are sitting down at the table for hours on end can’t do it, perhaps a court order mandating them to could.”
Police officials have declined to explain these delays, leaving advocates without answers months after the working group began. SFPD instead referred to the City Attorney’s Office, whose spokesperson John Coté said it would thoroughly review the lawsuit “and respond appropriately in court.”
“The city works every day to counter domestic violence. We take it very seriously,” Coté said in a statement after the lawsuit was filed. “The San Francisco Police Department is committed to taking appropriate steps to provide survivors of domestic violence with incident reports so survivors can seek legal protections.”
There are three plaintiffs in this case, although due to privacy and safety concerns SF Weekly has declined to name survivors of domestic violence. At the same time, having representation from attorneys like Korr and Finberg means these women are the lucky ones. An average of three in four people who request SFPD reports don’t have counsel to invoke laws they don’t know about. That’s who advocates are most worried about.
“It’s not just a question of compliance,” Finberg says. “There’s no way of telling who has been harmed and who has been killed as a result of this behavior. This is wrong, and the chief knows better.”
If you or someone you know is suffering from domestic abuse, call 911 in the case of an emergency, W.O.M.A.N. Inc’s 24-hour crisis hotline at 877-384-3578, or other San Francisco groups with hotlines. You may also reach the Cooperative Restraining Order Clinic at 415-255-0165 for assistance in obtaining a police report.