Justice Delayed for Months by Slow Police Response to Public Records Requests

NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit discovered the COVID-19 pandemic has caused staffing shortages at local police departments that has resulted in delays of a year or more in releasing public records of traffic accidents, putting some victims in financial hardship.

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An investigation by NBC Bay Area reveals that some of the largest police agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area are taking months and sometimes even a year or longer to release public records in the form of accident reports to the victims of traffic accidents.

These delays are forcing some accident victims into financial hardship because without those records insurance companies often won’t repair or replace the vehicles which can often be the only means of transportation to work.

Julie Moon knows the frustrations of this problem firsthand. She’s living it.

Moon and her husband showed NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit the results of a collision she was involved in more than a year earlier, in March of 2021. Her car, totaled in the accident, still sits under a tarp in front of her Crockett home.

“I've become a little pandemic fatigued about, like all the all the things that are kind of erroneous or not really working these days and kind of like taking it in stride,” Moon said. “But it is very frustrating.”

Moon described what happened to her and her car when she was driving home after teaching a piano lesson in the Piedmont area of Oakland.

“There was nothing really to it. It was just another day and I was going through the intersection,” Moon said of her travels through the intersection where Chatham Road and MacArthur Boulevard intersect with Beaumont Avenue and the off-ramp from the MacArthur Freeway (I-580.)

She says that as she entered the intersection with a green light, Julie says she noticed an oncoming car about to blow through the red light.

“Before I knew it, I think I was like “Oh! This is going to hit me!” Moon recounted to NBC Bay Area.

After slamming into her, Moon says, the other car caught fire and its driver jumped out and ran off into the neighborhood in front of several eyewitnesses.

“And the two and three bystanders that were helping kind of help trying to help me because some of them have gotten video footage and all this stuff,” Moon said. “But he (the other driver) was holding his pants and his duffle bag and going up the hill and running, running away from the burning car. And I was like, Oh, no! I couldn't stop…I couldn't stop him.”

The accident totaled her Volkswagen.

“My car was flung over there. 90 degrees to the right,” Moon recalled in an interview with NBC Bay Area. “I was covered in water and my car was steaming. And these bystanders came and were like ‘you have to get out of the car!’”

But what Julie Moon says hurt most is the year-long battle to get her accident report from the Oakland Police Department.

“They’re like ok, your report is here,” she recalled from conversations with an official at Oakland PD. “’I see it here, but it needs to go through the process.’”

Without that report, Julie Moon’s insurance company will not accept a claim to fix her car. And so, there it still sits, a year later, wrecked, under a tarp, in front of her home.

Moon says all of this and what she’s going through is unacceptable from a police agency that’s supposed to be serving the public.

Months of digging by NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit discovered Julie Moon is not alone.

Our investigation found that the COVID pandemic has created backlogs and delays for just the release of simple traffic accident reports as well as other law enforcement documents.

That has resulted in the loss of cars that go unrepaired and the loss of jobs by accident victims who can’t get to work without their cars.

Under California’s state public records law the public, including accident victims are supposed to get a copy of their police report within 10 days after filing a request – or get a legitimate explanation why those records can’t be released.

These records can be critical for insurance and legal purposes.

While most agencies regularly met that deadline before the covid pandemic our investigation found some victims have waited more than a year just to get a simple print out of their accident report.

According to a list of complaints NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit compiled both from accident victims and from plaintiff’s attorneys, two of the most problematic agencies for long waits for public records also patrol two of the biggest cities in the bay area, Oakland and San Francisco. 

“Since COVID, we've had a number of cases with really undue delays in getting the reports that we need,” said accident attorney Boone Calloway, who has been representing injury victims since 1987.

Calloway and his firm represent the family of the victim of a hit and run that took the life of Gregory Turnage Jr in Oakland last year. Turnage was a father, killed on Mother’s Day. But so far, attorneys for Turnage’s family still cannot get official records of the accident.

“They've officially told us no report is available,” said Calloway. However, “through a back channel, we've been provided a copy of a report that for all the world looked final to us.”

Calloway and his associate, Vadim Nebuchin, both deal with these type of public accident records requests all the time as part of their work. Both attorneys say they’ve never seen the system so backlogged as its been in the last two years.

They say that some of their clients have lost their jobs because their car is wrecked so they can’t get to work.  And insurance won’t fix it without a police report.

“We know that the police report, at least preliminary, was created and reviewed in the prompt manner,” said attorney Vadim Nebuchin. “It's the deep inside the back end of the police departments that seem to have some type of we delay in processing and delivering death information to the public.”

“We rely on the police to use their powers to gather evidence and information that allows us to go forward with our work,” Boone Calloway said. “If that link is broken or heavily delayed, then it's justice delayed.”

When asked what kind of impact these delays have on their clients, Nebuchin cut right to the point.

“Sometimes it can be devastating,” Nebuchin said.

To see how widespread the problem is, we sent a simple three-point questionnaire to more than a dozen large police agencies around the San Francisco Bay Area.

Nearly all the agencies told NBC Bay Area that before the COVID pandemic and associated cutbacks and challenges, they believe they complied with the state public records law and responded within ten days. But those same agencies acknowledged that the pandemic did initially impact their staffing levels and in some ways their response time to public records requests including the release of traffic accident report.

Most agencies told NBC Bay Area that they believe they’ve corrected the issue.

However, some have not.

In an email response to The Investigative Unit’s three questions, a spokesman for Oakland’s Police Department traced the office’s delays back to January 2021, when budget reallocation to policing alternatives meant a reduction in Oakland PD’s traffic unit. 

Oakland PD Strategic Communications Manager Paul Chambers, in an email, told NBC Bay Area that after January 2021 the police department’s traffic unit was reduced from 7 officers to only 2 officers, where it remains. 

Now, Chambers said, traffic reports are reviewed solely on overtime. That means that by May of 2021 there was a backlog of 1800 reports waiting for review. While that backlogged has been reduced, it still remains. Chambers said that in January there were still 300 reports waiting in the queue to be released to the public and to accident victims.

Other law enforcement agencies have also struggled but say they believed they’ve fixed the problem.

“I mean in general COVID affected us,” said Jeanine Luna of San Mateo’s Police Department. “While there might have been small delays just because of staffing, there hasn't been any cases that come to mind where somebody was flat out, either denied or it took an exorbitant amount of time.”

San Jose police officials say they, too, faced challenges because of the COVID pandemic.

“We lost staff members to work from home. We lost staff members to different positions in different locations,” said San Jose Police spokesman Steve Aponte.

Even so, SJPD managed to streamline their accident report system making it easier for residents to get reports on-line. Faster, Aponte says, than before the pandemic.

“You know, for a non-fatal, not injury traffic accident, it's actually improved because we've added a feature onto SJP dot org. It's allowed our citizens to almost immediately go and get that traffic accident report,” Aponte said.

A few departments that never answered the Investigative Unit’s three simple questions about how they handled records requests from the public during the pandemic.

For example, despite numerous requests dating back to January, by the end of April Berkeley police never responded.

And San Francisco Police officials finally got back to the Investigative Unit’s inquiry in mid-April, four months after they first acknowledged receiving the questions.

San Francisco’s response, four months later, was to tell NBC Bay Area they didn’t track this kind of thing and couldn’t tell us how long it takes to get public records.

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