The long effort to establish systems and practices that hold police properly accountable to the public has been characterized by excesses on both sides. Police unions argue for something close to immunity for officers, while reform advocates often gloss over the real dangers of policing and the genuine courage of those who do that work.
Now, however, the Legislature has the chance to restore some needed balance. Legislation under consideration would maintain protections that officers enjoy regarding personal information while allowing the public to evaluate the performance of officers who have previously run into trouble.
Senate Bill 1421 would undo a misguided effort in the 1970s to over-protect police from public scrutiny and yet preserve protections for officers who have done their jobs well.
Under existing law, “personnel records” of police are exempt from the California Public Records Act. That language is so broad that even officers with long litanies of complaints or punishments for misconduct remain out of public view. Their records only can be shared by virtue of discovery, and the burden is on defendants to show that officers’ records are relevant to their current cases. Many defendants are tried without ever knowing the misconduct that officers testifying against them may have engaged in.
That means officers with histories of misconduct can continue violating policies, practices, and laws with impunity. The Los Angeles Times recently reported a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy testified in more than 30 cases before prosecutors realized that he had already been suspended for doctoring evidence in a criminal case.
California is one of just three states that shield police disciplinary records from all public scrutiny. The Washington Post concluded that officers in California shot and killed 162 people last year, but the records of those incidents remain almost entirely unavailable to the public.
SB 1421 would change that. Under its provisions, the records of any officer found to have framed a suspect would be presumptively public, along with any analysis of the investigation into the complaint and any action taken by the officer’s employer. The bill also would clear the way for the public release of information relating to officers who shot and killed or seriously wounded people or to officers who committed sexual assault while on duty. Surely, it’s not too much to ask that officers who are sexually assaulting people while at work might be subject to some scrutiny.
Still, some information would remain protected: The officer’s home address and phone number would be redacted, as would the names of the officer’s family members; information that might compromise confidential informants also would be subject to redaction.
That won’t please everyone. Reform advocates often bristle at redaction. Police records, after all, are government documents, and the public generally has the right to view records that its government collects and creates.
The redactions permitted by this bill will remove from public view material that some understandably believe should be public. In endorsing SB 1421, a Sacramento Bee editorial praised the measure even while allowing that it “isn’t enough.”
Police unions, meanwhile, already have expressed their uneasiness with a bill that would expose more officer misconduct than the law presently allows. A member of the Los Angeles Police Protective League told CALmatters in April that the bill would open a “can of worms.” Members of the Assembly have hesitated to move the bill forward, evidence of misgivings and of the power that police unions wield in the Legislature.
They are wrong to fight this bill. Sen. Nancy Skinner, the author, has struck a commendable balance. “California is an outlier when it comes to providing public access to law enforcement records,” Skinner said recently. “SB 1421 is a sunshine ordinance that will help build trust and accountability.”
Skinner’s bill offers one other rare opportunity – the chance to correct oneself. The law that protects police records to such an unusual degree was passed in 1978. It was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, then in his first term. If SB 1421 makes it to his desk, Brown will have the chance to undo, in his last term, a mistake from his first.
Jim Newton teaches at UCLA and is the editor of Blueprint, a public policy magazine, email@example.com. He is writing a biography of Gov. Jerry Brown. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.