Police Transparency Law Does Not Cover Car Accidents, SDPD Says
A law intended to increase public access to police records does not apply to cases of officers killing people in accidental car crashes, according to the San Diego Police Department.
KPBS sought records related to an incident on the night of June 8, when 33-year-old Bernadette Grantling was struck and killed by two police cars, but the police department denied the request.
The police cars were driving on West Washington Street in Hillcrest while responding to a burglary. The call did not warrant using patrol lights, according to a department press release.
"A woman entered the road and was struck by the first police car," the press release from June 10 states. "The second police car swerved to the right to avoid the collision and struck the female who had been pushed into the right lane."
Grantling was taken to a hospital where she was pronounced dead. The San Diego County Medical Examiner said she appeared to be homeless, and that her death was an accident.
The new state transparency law, SB 1421, allows public access to police records in four scenarios: when an officer discharges their firearm, when an officer uses force that results in serious injury or death, when an officer is found to have been dishonest during an investigation, and when an officer is found to have committed sexual assault.
San Diego police spokesman Shawn Takeuchi said the department defines "force" as "the act of gaining and/or maintaining control of a subject or situation." He said because the collision was accidental, it did not meet the criteria for SB 1421 and so records sought by KPBS would not be released.
The law could allow for public access to records when a police officer uses their car intentionally in an act of "force," or when an officer shoots someone — even by accident — but not when an officer injures or kills someone by accident with a car.
Takeuchi added the California Vehicle Code does not allow for public disclosure of accident reports except to individuals involved in the collision, or their representatives.
Matthew Halgren, a First Amendment attorney with Sheppard Mullin who has represented KPBS in previous public records cases, said SB 1421 has shed some new light on law enforcement agencies, which were previously shielded by strict privacy laws. But he said departments and courts have varied in their implementation of the law.
"There are at least some aspects of police conduct and misconduct that are not available pursuant to public records requests, even under SB 1421," Halgren said. "So really this is an area that might be ripe for additional legislative action to further enhance public access."
Fred Laleh, owner of the Mediterranean Cafe restaurant on the block of West Washington Street where Grantling was hit, said he frequently sees individuals he believes to be homeless crossing the street unsafely.
"I go lower than the speed limit because I know they are out here and they are just crossing the street without paying attention," he said. Laleh said he did not blame the police for Grantling's death because they had to drive quickly to respond to the reported burglary.
There is one other case in the past year of a police car hitting and killing a pedestrian: Jesus Cazares, 60, died after being hit by a police car while he was attempting to cross 47th Street in Lincoln Park on Sept. 3, 2018.
Oscar Medina, a project manager for Circulate San Diego, a nonprofit that advocates for San Diego's Vision Zero initiative to end all traffic deaths by 2025, said Grantling's death shows a need for greater investment in safe street infrastructure.
"Even when human error occurs by either pedestrians or motorists, our streets should be designed to ensure errors are not fatal," Medina said in a press release on June 10. "One death on San Diego's streets is too many."
San Diego's Vision Zero website shows two pedestrians were seriously injured in collisions within a block of where Grantling was hit. Those collisions took place in 2015 and 2016.