Advocates Applaud Advancement of Bill to Open Police Misconduct Records in California

(From Press Release) – Today, the California Senate Appropriations Committee advanced legislation to open law enforcement misconduct and use of force records. SB 1421, introduced by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), will make public information about confirmed cases of misconduct – including sexual assault and job-related dishonesty – and serious uses of force by peace officers in California.

In response, a broad coalition of organizations supporting the bill released the following statement:

“We, the people, have a fundamental right to know when police shoot and kill, or engage in serious misconduct like falsifying evidence or committing sexual assault. But state law shields this abuse and misconduct behind a wall of secrecy, to the detriment of Californians’ wellbeing and safety. This secrecy further increases distrust in law enforcement, particularly within communities that are disproportionately subjected to police brutality, violence, and abuse.

We commend the Senate Appropriations Committee’s passage of SB 1421 and look forward to seeing the bill to the finish line to increase police transparency and accountability in California.”

SB 1421 now heads to the Senate for a floor vote. The bill is sponsored by the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, ACLU of California, Anti Police-Terror Project, Black Lives Matter California, California Faculty Association, California News Publishers Association, Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice, PICO California, PolicyLink, and Youth Justice Coalition LA.

Back in 2006, the California Supreme Court in Copley Press v. Superior Court held that records of sustained misconduct charges according to the ACLU “are confidential and may not be disclosed to the public. The decision prevents the public from learning the extent to which police officers have been disciplined as a result of misconduct.”

The ACLU, a co-sponsor of the legislation, responded, “We are thrilled to see SB 1421 (Skinner) move forward and stand united in our belief that California must end the secrecy surrounding police use of force and job-related misconduct, including the withholding of records of investigations into officers found guilty of sexually assaulting or planting evidence on innocent members of the public.

“For years, peace officers have enjoyed an unparalleled and unnecessary level of secrecy that allows them to keep their abuses hidden from public view. SB 1421 is a much-needed bill that will restore public access to this information to help hold officers accountable and begin to rid our communities of police harassment, abuse, and violence,” they stated in a press release.

“Twenty-seven other states – including Texas, Alabama, and Kentucky – make officer disciplinary records available to the public in some form. It’s high time California catches up and passes SB 1421.”

California’s existing confidentiality rules on law enforcement records, which SB 1421 would modify, are among the most secretive in the country. Under existing law, the public and hiring agencies do not have access to internal reports or investigations into officer use of force. These restrictions erode public trust, and can allow officers with repeated incidents to bounce from agency to agency, undetected.

Specifically, SB 1421 would require law enforcement agencies to give the public access to records related to:

Discharge of a firearm, or use of force that results in death or serious bodily injury;

On-the-job sexual assault, including coercion or exchanging sex for lenience; or

Dishonesty in reporting, investigating, or prosecuting a crime.

“The passion we saw in today’s committee hearing shows we need better transparency to build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” said Senator Skinner.

“Building trust between police and communities has to start with transparency,” Senator Skinner said previously. “SB 1421 ensures that when officers use serious or deadly force, engage in sexual assault or are dishonest in carrying out their duties, the public is informed.

“The vast majority of our law enforcement officers have excellent records,” she said. “SB 1421 will help us hold accountable the few bad actors and build greater community trust in law enforcement.”

The legislation is supported by the First Amendment Coalition, which argues it “would bring long-overdue transparency to records relating to police misconduct.”

The group argues that law enforcement officers are alone among public employees “in being able to keep secret even confirmed allegations of misconduct.” They write, “California has long been an outlier in the degree to which it allows records created by law enforcement to be kept out of public view. Many if not most states require, for example, the disclosure of police reports; California does not.”

They add, “California unlike a majority of states requires secrecy for records about alleged (and even confirmed) police misconduct.”

The group argues, “There is no principled reason in law or policy for police officer misconduct files to remain under this shroud of secrecy. Given the extraordinary power and discretion law enforcement officers have, when they abuse the public trust, the public is entitled to know about it and to know the details. SB 1421 would begin to shed some light on records that have been in the dark for far to long, and so FAC strongly supports the legislation.”

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