Residents in the city of San Francisco can now search for police records on a website launched by the Public Defender’s Office on Wednesday.
The new toll, which is believed to be the first in the United States, gives members of the general public access to records of misconduct, shootings, civil suits, and several officer complaints. The website comes two years after the California state landmarked a bill that unseal police files.
Beginning in 2019, the state’s transparency law—SB1421—removed the protections surrounding police personnel documents and made records on excessive use of force and bad behavior available to people who requested them.
Members of the public can now search and access information about the city’s law enforcement agencies through the CopWatch website.
“This database really comes out of our core work. We … have a responsibility to review available records in advocating for our clients,” Public Defender Mano Raju said.
“So once the information is actually available and public, we certainly want at least that to be accessible to people,” he added.
The website cuts the time for criminal defense attorneys to access police records they need to scrutinize the credibility of police officers and witnesses. CopWatch also prevents investigations into officers from being handled internally and hidden from the public.
CopWatch, which is touted as a living database, will be updated regularly when information becomes available. Currently, the database has records from 416 sworn officers in San Francisco, 377 of whom are working with the city’s police department.
The database also holds the records of those who are employed with the sheriff’s department, BART Police, California Highway Patrol, and the District Attorney’s Office.
CopWatch will include records such as civil suit documents, complaints filed with the Department of Police Accountability, criminal records, and media coverage.
The Public Defender’s Office said the database only includes records from a fraction of San Francisco police officers. They will update the database when several other records are released.
CopWatch was made by the Public Defender’s Officer’s Integrity Unit. The unit is also tasked with resentencing and reduced sentencing.
Democratic Senator Nancy Skinner praised the database and its format. She authored the transparency law.
“Transparency builds trust between the public and police. 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,” she said.
Danielle Harris, who leads the Integrity Unit, said CopWatch could benefit private defense attorneys, journalists, and victims of police misconduct. They could also help activists and people who have been accused of committing a crime, The San Francisco Chronicle reported.
“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,” Harris said. “The public thirst for more information about the folks who are armed presences in our streets has reached a near breaking point. And that is why we’re finally, finally having some of the confidentiality removed.”