Last week, an Alameda County Judge ruled that the Berkeley Police Review Commission’s public hearings violate state confidentiality laws. The Judge wrote:
“Public disclosure of (the commission’s) records” violates a penal code establishing that “records pertaining to peace officer misconduct, complaints, investigations, hearings and personal records are confidential.” (Daily Californian, February 13, 2007).
The ruling allows the commission to privately review complaints and submit its findings confidentially to the Berkeley Police Department.
Last year the California Supreme Court ruled that all police personnel matters are confidential. Most other California cities halted public police disciplinary proceedings after the Supreme Court ruling.
However, Berkeley “continued to fight for the practice, arguing that officers’ “awesome and intrusive powers” should keep the police force open to broad scrutiny” (Associated Press, February 13, 2007).
The Associated Press also reports that the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the ACLU are pushing for legislation in the State Legislature to overturn the Supreme Court decision from last year.
There is a clear balance of principles at stake in this discussion. On the one hand, there is a notion of confidentiality for personnel records not only of police officers but also all public employees. On the other hand, the police have the ability to wield immense and intrusive powers into the private lives of citizens. If misused, an error by a police officer can alter a citizen’s life. That is an immense power and responsibility. So the question is how best do you ensure that police officers are operating within the scope of their duties.
The civilian oversight process argues that transparency of government actions is the best way to ensure that complaints do not merely get swept away. On the other hand, police advocates would argue that a politicized process serves neither the community nor the officer.
My own view on this says that we should err on the side of oversight and transparency and then build in processes to protect the rights and reputations of individual police officers as needed. I believe that not only serves the best interest of individuals but also of the police. The public can trust that the sworn officers of the law are themselves operating within the law’s parameters. That trust will then immeasurably aid the police in the dangerous and vital work that they have to do.
—Doug Paul Davis reporting