The latest evidence-handling embarrassment out of the San Francisco Police Department — which this time involves DUI testing devices — should be sobering for top brass at the department, especially as it relates to the public perception of officers.
The SFPD has been rocked by other such scandals in the past two years, including a civilian lab technician pilfering drugs that were part of evidence and allegations that officers illegally entered residences and then falsified police reports and stole evidence. Those 2010 and 2011 events combined to result in the dismissal of hundreds of drug cases.
Now there are questions about certain DUI testing devices that officers use in the field to test for sobriety. The so-called preliminary alcohol screening devices are supposed to be recalibrated every 10 days or 150 uses, according to the manufacturer. Yet Public Defender Jeff Adachi and District Attorney George Gascón revealed Monday that the needed calibrations appear to have not been done, perhaps as far back as 2006.
The public defender says his office may attempt to dismiss cases, and it could impact many of the hundreds of cases it handles each year. The district attorney, however, said that 98 percent of the DUI cases in San Francisco also have other sobriety tests — such as Breathalyzer or blood tests — that can be used as evidence.
The first thing that needs to be done is the close review of all cases that used the DUI testing devices in question. Gascón said his office will dismiss cases in which the devices were used as central evidence, and this needs to happen in an expedited manner.
But at the same time the public defender and district attorney are wrangling with the legal fallout, the SFPD needs to spell out in clear terms how this all happened and how the department is going to keep it from occurring in the future. This incident does not need a fall guy or gal, and the public should not jump to the conclusion that this a scandal. On the surface, it appears to be a case of negligence, not a deliberate act of malice or malfeasance.
Yet the problem with the testing devices should not be swept under the rug. The credibility of all the department’s officers depends on the public trusting their work. And the scandals of recent years — although clearly involving just a handful of individuals — continue to cast a shadow over the work done day in and day out by the rest of our police force. The men and women who put on uniforms each day, as well as the public they are sworn to protect, deserve a full explanation and resolution of this problem.