Proposed bill would open secret Calif. police records to the public

Police unions have long argued that the rules protect officer safety and privacy and have lobbied to crush prior efforts to change the laws


Liam Dillon
Los Angeles Times

An effort to make some internal law enforcement investigations open to the public cleared a key hurdle in the Legislature on Thursday, marking the first time in four decades that lawmakers could vote to meaningfully increase transparency surrounding police misconduct.

Senate Bill 1421 would open records from investigations of officer shootings and other major force incidents along with confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying while on duty. The bill’s author, Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), said Thursday’s decision to send the measure through a legislative fiscal committee is a major step toward building trust between police and the communities they serve.

California has the strictest laws in the country protecting the confidentiality of police misconduct records. (Photo/AP)
California has the strictest laws in the country protecting the confidentiality of police misconduct records. (Photo/AP)

California has the strictest laws in the country protecting the confidentiality of police misconduct records. The rules not only prohibit the public from seeing them, but also deny prosecutors direct access.

A Times investigation found that past misconduct by law enforcement officers who testify in court is routinely kept hidden by California’s police privacy laws, which were first passed in 1978.

Police unions have long argued that the rules protect officer safety and privacy and have lobbied to crush prior efforts to change the laws. If Skinner’s bill becomes law, it would be the first time since the confidentiality rules first passed that the Legislature would significantly unwind them.

Skinner’s bill was changed Thursday to allow police departments to withhold records in cases in which they determine disclosure would be against the public interest. In addition, disclosure of investigative reports on incidents where officers used Tasers was dropped from the bill.

Thursday marked a busy day for lawmakers debating major bills affecting police issues. High-profile legislation aiming to make it easier to prosecute police officers who kill civilians was put on hold. That measure, Assembly Bill 931 by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), has been the subject of intense debate by civil rights organizations who believe it’s necessary to hold officers accountable and law enforcement groups who argue the effort is an existential threat.

State senators on Thursday morning did not advance Weber’s bill, but instead voted to move it out of a fiscal committee, where it faced a deadline to pass by the end of the week. Now, lawmakers have more time to debate the issue, Weber said.

“This is good news,” Weber said in a statement. “This is a critically important discussion that is long overdue in California.”

The proposal to open some internal personnel records still faces a difficult road to passage. The largest remaining hurdle is a vote by the full state Assembly, which has numerous members with strong ties to law enforcement among the ruling Democratic party. Skinner said negotiations over the bill were continuing with law enforcement groups, who want additional protections for police.

The bill faces a deadline of the end of the month to pass both houses of the Legislature. To become law, Gov. Jerry Brown would then have to sign it. Brown approved the law that first enshrined the strict confidentiality protections for police records in 1978 during his first term in office. Brown has not taken a position on Skinner’s bill.

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©2018 the Los Angeles Times

 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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