Do you know where your natural gas shutoff valve is? Are you going to need a wrench to turn it off? If the ground starts shaking and the ceiling is coming down on your head, are you going to be thinking about your pipes cracking and spewing high-pressure, flammable natural gas into your home?
Probably not, which is why automatic shutoff valves were developed. They trip and kill the gas flow to the pipes inside your house when seismic activity is greater than 5.2 on the Richter scale.
Right now, the city puts its faith in citizens to be ready to kill the gas if the big one hits. Not all cities agree with this policy. After the Northridge earthquake in 1994, Los Angeles passed an ordinance mandating automatic shutoff valves in all new construction and for home repairs greater than $10,000. Alameda, Contra Costa, and Marin counties have similar legislation, as do the cities of Pittsburg and Hercules. Why not earthquake-prone San Francisco?
That’s the question being explored by the city’s Department of Building Inspection (DBI). But there are other questions too: if San Francisco decides to make a policy requiring automatic shutoff valves, can they be installed more expeditiously than the 11 years and counting it has taken Los Angeles?
DBI staff, building inspection commissioners, and city officials from the Fire Department and the Office of Emergency Services held an initial Aug. 30 meeting on the issue, and though it’s too early to tell how San Francisco could mandate installation of these valves, the sentiment was that the status quo strategy of public education is not enough. The discussion also revealed some key questions about where exactly the valves can be installed, who is responsible for them, and who’s going to pay.
In San Francisco there are currently two ways the gas can be shut off when there’s a leak: either Pacific Gas and Electric Co. or the customer can do it. PG&E provides manual shutoff valves at all installations, but they can be difficult to operate, especially for a disabled or senior citizen.
PG&E officials say they don’t have a position when it comes to recommending whether automatic shutoff valves should be installed.
“Because we serve such a large, diverse customer base, our position is a neutral position. We do not support or not support installation of these devices,” PG&E’s Paul Brooks said at the meeting.
Brooks, a senior gas engineer for PG&E, said the company has manual valves for the main gas lines but confirmed that there is nothing in the system that trips automatically during an earthquake. PG&E is responsible for the health of the pipes up to where they meet the meter, after which the customer is liable.
PG&E has been replacing old pipes throughout the city with polyethylene lines, which are designed to flex more before snapping when the ground shakes. In some places, the new pipes allow for gas to be delivered faster, at a much higher pressure. That’s a problem, says Building Inspection Commission president Debra Walker, who’s concerned about the danger of higher-pressured gas being piped into people’s homes.
“We have a unique situation here in the city because of our property lines,” she told the Guardian after the meeting. In San Francisco, it’s common to construct buildings right up to the lot lines, milking every inch of property and making it necessary to put gas meters, gauges, valves, and gas pressure step-downs underneath the structure.
“A lot of these gas lines go into the building before the step-down. The problem and the risk are already in the building,” Walker said. She argues that automatic shutoff valves should be placed farther up the line and PG&E should assume some responsibility for the installation.
Only PG&E could install them. Since 2002, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has disallowed customers from installing automatic shutoff valves on the gas company’s side of the meter. Fabian Padilla, a former Southern California Gas Company employee who was at the meeting, said utilities lobbied for the prohibition to avoid liability if valves were improperly installed on the gas company’s side.
Brooks cited the CPUC’s general orders when asked whether the company could assume responsibility for installing shutoff valves on their lines and said they would have to be responsible for the valves as well. He didn’t know if that was something the company would be willing to do.
After the meeting, Padilla told us, “It’s obvious that the best way to do it is on the gas company’s side of the meter.” Padilla, who is now president of Affordable Safety Solutions Inc. (ASSI), a company that designs and distributes earthquake gas safety devices and specializes in automatic shutoff valves, thinks company-side installation is easier and more economical because the lines are smaller, the gas doesn’t have to be turned off to install the valves, and in San Francisco’s case, where the meters are under the buildings and difficult to reach, it’s easier to install them elsewhere.
Cost is the other major factor. Padilla said he offers valves and installations for $245 to his Southern California customers. The DBI estimated costs between $250 and $600 per meter, which becomes a pricey endeavor for multiple-dwelling buildings where each unit has its own meter and consequently, its own automatic shutoff valve.
It’s a cost some are concerned that landlords would defer to the tenants. A few hundred dollars for a valve may seem like a worthy investment to most homeowners, and even though your neighbors also benefit when your house doesn’t blow up, not everyone may be willing to throw down for the lifesavers.
The cost to install valves in every household could be enormous, but city officials at the meeting seemed unwilling to issue a mandate without offering some kind of financial assistance. Though it seems unlikely that PG&E would incur the costs as a good-neighbor gesture, the possibility of funding from the city’s office of emergency services or the Federal Emergency Management Agency is being considered. Officials said more research and risk assessment needed to be done, and meetings are being scheduled where the key questions of who pays, where the valves will go, and whether they will be put into widespread use before the big one may get answered.
“It’s very important that we resolve this issue,” Walker said to us after the meeting. “There are challenges around where these valves are and who will be responsible.” SFBG
Volume 40 Number 50
September 13 – September 19, 2006
If any questions remain today as to how the law enforcement establishment views antiwar activists in the post–Sept. 11 world, just follow the money for answers.
The San Francisco Police Department was paid $3.3 million from the US Department of Homeland Security to cover overtime costs for officers who patrolled the major antiwar demonstrations of early 2003.
After months of haggling, the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security finally turned key records over to the Guardian. They showed that the money came from a federal “critical infrastructure protection” grant and covered police overtime costs that were incurred by the city between March 2003 and October 2004.
The overtime payments concentrated mostly on more than two weeks’ worth of large protests that occurred in San Francisco around the outset of the war in Iraq. On March 23, 2003 — the first full day after the war began, when the city was nearly shut down by the demonstrations and there were nearly 2,000 arrests — the overtime costs covered by terror money alone reached nearly $800,000.
Other days’ payment ranged from $5,000 to as much as $500,000. Most of the Police Department records included in one file the Guardian obtained describe the events as “anti-war demonstrations,” but one protest is identified as an “alternative bicycle event,” while another is listed as a “Global Exchange Protest of Fox News.”
To obtain the federal antiterror funding, local governments must first spend their own money and follow up with a request for reimbursement from the feds. While the critical infrastructure protection grant exclusively covers overtime expenses, the records we obtained happen to show the full amounts motorcycle patrol officers earned to work the protests: sometimes up to $80 an hour.
San Francisco already pays out millions of dollars annually for overtime expenses from the city’s General Fund to cover chronic staff shortages at the Police Department. The San Francisco Office of the Controller predicted in March that overtime expenditures generated by the department would climb to around $20 million by the end of fiscal year 2005, $7 million more than the year before.
During the spring budget process, police officials asked the city for $12.5 million to send 250 new wannabe cops through academy classes. But the department hopes to hire 350 to 400 more sworn and nonsworn employees over the next three years. Mayor Gavin Newsom made new police recruitments a top priority in his proposed budget for fiscal year 2006–07.
In 2003, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that then-mayor Willie Brown intended to cover some of the costs of the city’s widely publicized antiwar protests through federal terror funds. An agreement for the total award between San Francisco and the state, which administers the federal funds, was signed in August 2003 by former budget director Ben Rosenfield, who worked for the both Brown and Mayor Newsom. Spokespeople for Newsom and the Police Department did not answer our inquiries in time.
At the time of the protests, Brown seemed to really stretch in his attempt to link them to a terrorism threat. According to the Chronicle, Brown said, “Terrorists could use the demonstrations as a ‘cover’ to get near the bridges or targeted buildings in the Financial District or Civic Center area.” (G.W. Schulz)
In late June, two San Francisco police officers were accused of giving beer and vodka to three teenage girls and making sexual advances toward them. One of the young women was just 16 years old, and the two others were 17. The alleged conduct of the officers occurred both in and out of uniform, and they even reportedly offered the girls confiscated fireworks from the trunk of their patrol car.
In February, an off-duty San Francisco Police Department officer was arrested for threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend and their 5-year-old daughter during a domestic quarrel. The officer was awaiting disciplinary hearings before the San Francisco Police Commission, according to the most recent public records of the matter.
In March 2005, an SFPD domestic violence inspector was arrested for driving drunk through Marin County and smashing into another car. Fairfax cops found the inspector had a blood alcohol level of 0.27 percent, more than three times the legal limit. She was eventually suspended by the SFPD for 45 days.
These are just a few cases of alleged misconduct that have recently appeared before the Police Commission. And they’re among the last cases, which until now were available through state open-record laws, that most people will ever know details about. Due to a state Supreme Court ruling issued at the end of August, citizens and the press will be unable to access most public information about why individual officers are charged with vioutf8g department rules or even possibly breaking the law.
“It’s devastating,” said Rick McKee, a longtime open-government activist and president of the Sacramento-based group Californians Aware. “It creates a two-tiered system of public access: one for general government employees and another for police officers…. There was no considerable thought given to what this does to the public’s right to know.”
Records of misconduct charges have largely been open in San Francisco until now. The public could access summaries of misconduct charges, filed either by the San Francisco Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC) or the police chief’s office, and attend hearings at the Hall of Justice that included testimony from the officers. No longer.
An attempt by the Guardian last week to obtain misconduct records from the Police Commission was blocked by administrative staff, and two disciplinary hearings scheduled for Sept. 6 and 7, ordinarily open to the public, were cancelled due to uncertainty surrounding the decision in Copley Press v. San Diego County.
Historically, the names of officers investigated by the OCC and charged with misconduct by the chief were not revealed publicly until their cases had made it to the commission, which is where the Guardian has obtained them in the past. In other words, frivolous charges of police brutality, for instance, weren’t immediately disclosed to the public. Personnel files maintained by the department could remain secret, but cities and counties individually decided what independent review commissions could make available.
The Aug. 31 Supreme Court ruling greatly broadens the scope of privacy laws that exclusively protect cops from the disclosure of disciplinary records maintained by police departments. The decision now shields disciplinary records previously available either through records requests or citizen review panels, such as the OCC.
Guylin Cummins, an attorney who represented a Southern California newspaper in the public records challenge that led to last week’s ruling, said Sacramento legislators never intended to completely curtail access to disciplinary files.
“Nowhere in the legislative history does it say, ‘We’re going to trump the [California Public Records Act],’” Cummins said.
But an attorney for the Deputy Sheriffs’ Association of San Diego County, Everett Bobbitt, told the Guardian that public defenders and litigants were compiling the records in databases to use arbitrarily against cops in court.
“You’d go to one county and they’d restrict [the records], and you’d go to another county and they wouldn’t,” he said. “I thought that wasn’t fair. There was a lot of personal material in those files.”
Steve Johnson, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Police Officers Association, said the group has always believed that the California Penal Code extended such privacy rights to officers, but that the Police Commission had regularly declined to honor them. When we contacted him, he had yet to read the Copley decision.
“We have always been of the opinion that the city should comply with the penal code…. Our attorneys have made motions in the past, but they were denied,” Johnson said.
The case that led to last week’s decision began in 2003 when a San Diego deputy sheriff was fired for failing to arrest a suspect in a 2002 domestic violence dispute involving a clearly injured female victim. The deputy then didn’t report the incident and manipulated his patrol log to depict the call as less serious than what was actually probable cause for an arrest. He appealed the termination but requested that the hearing be kept confidential.
As a result, the San Diego Union-Tribune was barred from attending the hearing, and a public records request for details of the disciplinary proceedings was denied. The paper’s parent company, Copley Press, sued to retrieve the deputy’s name, among other things, but a trial court in San Diego denied relief. Further records requests by the paper following the decision prompted the San Diego Civil Service Commission to reveal some additional details, but only in redacted form. The deputy’s name was still withheld.
Following a closed-door commission meeting, the deputy’s firing was changed to a resignation and the charge that he falsified his patrol log was removed from the record. The Union-Tribune went to an appeals court judge asking for the deputy’s name and any additional evidence of the agreement, including documents and audiotapes, from the case. The lower-court decision was overturned there. But along with the Supreme Court, where the case eventually arrived, the appeals court never technically ruled on public access to disciplinary hearings. It only addressed disciplinary records.
“[The decision] is not saying that civil service commission hearings are closed,” said Susan Seager, a First Amendment lawyer in Los Angeles who submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the Union-Tribune. “I think that’s the debate here.” But because so much material presented at the hearings comes from personnel files, Bobbitt responded, they’ll likely have to be closed in order to comply with the decision.
Journalists at the Union-Tribune, for their part, obviously dislike the ruling.
“Certainly officers have an understandable motive for being fiercely protective of their privacy,” the paper wrote in a Sept. 2 editorial. “Yet decades of scandals across the nation show that police cover-ups of internal misconduct are disturbingly common. The idea that police often operate under a ‘code of silence’ isn’t just a figment of a pulp novelist’s imagination.”
It’s not easy being a cop in this city. San Francisco for the most part ideologically opposes rigid, law-and-order conservatism. Pressure on the SFPD to do something about the city’s alarming rate of gun violence continues to swell. And few people even want to be a cop anymore, leaving the department chronically understaffed and forcing the city to pay out millions of dollars for overtime expenses.
But bad cops are a fact of life.
More than 70 cases of alleged police misconduct were sustained by the OCC and sent to Police Chief Heather Fong for action last year. Literally hundreds of misconduct cases involving still-incomplete investigations were pending by the end of 2005. The department’s own internal affairs arm, which handles additional misconduct probes, sustained 63 cases of misconduct in the second quarter of 2006.
In exchange for receiving a considerable amount of power, cops have always been responsible for maintaining a higher standard of conduct, a fact enshrined in the Police Department’s own General Orders.
“Police officers are empowered to deprive other citizens of their freedom when they violate the law,” the orders state. “Because they have this power, the public expects, and rightly so, that police officers live up to the highest standards of conduct they enforce among the public generally.”
In the 6–1 Copley ruling, Justice Kathryn Werdegar stood alone in her dissent, arguing that “the majority overvalues the deputy’s interest in privacy, undervalues the public’s interest in disclosure, and ultimately fails to implement the legislature’s careful balance of the competing concerns in this area.”
The majority opinion, written by Justice Ming Chin, stuck mostly to technical details and argued that the appeals court erred in not defining the San Diego Civil Service Commission as an “employing agency” of the deputy, a key legal distinction.
Ultimately, the convoluted decision seems to beg for clarity from the legislature, but taking on privacy rights for cops could be tantamount to political suicide in Sacramento. One of the state’s most powerful lobbying groups, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, would be affected by changes in the law. Bobbitt warned that any attempt by the legislature to toy with the decision would be met with fierce resistance.
“Law enforcement associations will lobby very hard against any changes that would impact this decision,” he said.
The view is a little different in San Francisco. Police Commission president Louise Renne — who is hardly known as a bleeding heart liberal — told the Guardian, “I don’t think the state Supreme Court made the right decision from a public policy point of view.”
For now, at least, six state Supreme Court justices have moved one of local government’s most powerful entities deeper into the shadows. SFBG