Bills to Open Up Police Officer Records, and Require Release of Body-Cam Footage Pass, Signaling New Era of Transparency and Accountability
By Crescenzo Vellucci
Vanguard Sacramento Bureau
SACRAMENTO – Until the final minutes of the legislative session late Friday, it looked like police and bail reform measures – targeted for must passage by optimistic social justice reformers – would have only a so-so record in a pitched battle over much of 2018 with law enforcement agencies and cop unions.
But, as the clocked ticked down in the late hours of the last day of August, the law enforcement’s decades-long stranglehold on the public’s right to know appeared to be broken.
Of four police and bail reform bills, three have been sent to Gov. Brown and another was shelved until 2019.
The two measures that would significantly increase transparency were given the go-ahead by the Legislature very late Friday night, and after it seemed the votes just were not there to do earlier in the day. That’s been the fate of similar legislation for many years in Sacramento.
But now it’s up to the Governor – interestingly. Brown actually signed into law strict protections for police when he was governor the first time in 1978.
SB 1421 by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), would open up the personnel records of officers in lethal or major use of force incidents. Those records have been protected for decades from prosecutors and the public, allowing officers fired for misconduct to move on to other law enforcement jobs without anyone knowing that officer had a record of questionable or wrong doing. That is now changing.
The other transparency bill, AB 748 (Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-SF), would require police agencies to release body-camera recordings within 30 days in most cases in lethal or major use of force incidents.
In other related legislation, the biggest change in cop law would regulate when officers can use lethal force – but that measure, bitterly contested by all of law enforcement – was shelved until January. It’ll be another battle for another day – in 2019.
And, a bill to end the bail bond system in the state – which can keep poorer Californians, who have not been convicted of any crime, in custody – has been sent to the Governor. But last-minute amendments left sponsors and social justice advocates wondering if they made the system worse in some respects.
The detailed rundown:
POLICE RECORDS BILL APPROVED.
Skinner’s SB 1421, pushed along by Black Lives Matter and other social justice groups, bucked the powerful police unions who said officers’ personnel records ought to remain secret. Reportedly, tens of thousands of dollars were contributed Thursday by those unions to Democrat lawmakers. The unions said it was a coincidence.
SB 1421 allows the disclosure of records that unions have claimed for years wouldn’t be right under confidentiality rights of officers.
One supporter noted that it is all about accountability, and that SB 1421 will “shine a light” on police violence and racism at a time when many people are demanding it.
“I am pleased,” said Tanya Faison on Facebook very late Friday night when learning that the bill has passed. Faison is the organizer with Black Lives Matter Sacramento, which has been protesting regularly to maintain attention on a string of killings of people of color by Sacramento-area law enforcement.
COP BODY-CAM FOOTAGE BILL OK’D.
With an hour or two to spare Friday, Ting’s AB 748 moves to the Governor’s desk – the body camera bill law enforcement agencies to release body camera footage within 45 days, in the event of the use of lethal force or other force that causes death or major injury, unless it can be shown there is good cause to hold it another 30 days.
Although law enforcement strenuously opposed this measure, the ACLU and news organizations as well as social justice groups called it a transparency measure.
“Trust between law enforcement and the communities they protect is key to maintaining peace and safety in our neighborhoods,” said Ting. “We need the statewide standard for the disclosure of body camera footage outlined in AB 748 because greater transparency is the only way to rebuild public trust after critical incidents occur.”
About 20 percent of CA’s police departments use body-worn cameras now – Sacramento PD starting wearing them this past year, although County Sheriff Deputies do not. The City of Sacramento has a relatively new policy of releasing body-cam footage quickly, in less than 45 days.
“(Police) departments commonly cite ‘pending investigation’ as a reason to withhold body camera footage, further increasing mistrust. Recordings can show whether or not an officer followed the law when critical incidents occur and help clear an officer of any perceived wrongdoing. If extra time is needed for an investigation, AB 748 also allows for 30-day delays in the release of footage,” according to a statement from Ting’s office.
LIMITING COP LETHAL FORCE.
AB 931, which would make it more difficult for California law enforcement to justify the use of lethal force and touted by supporters as being more than a “century overdue,” was turned into a two-year bill this week – not a death knell, but not a good sign.
The measure – which would redefine the standard for use of lethal force to “necessary” from “reasonable” – was in trouble from the beginning earlier this year. Authored by Assemblymembers Shirley Weber, D-San Diego and Kevin McCarty D-Sacramento, the bill was in response to the Sacramento Police Dept. killing of Stephon Clark in Sacramento earlier in 2018.
Clark carried only a cellphone and officers were “safe” behind a building, but still fired dozens of rounds to kill him in the backyard of his relatives. The killing led to months of loud and unruly protests that closed Interstate 5 and city streets, as hundreds poured into city streets. At least 172 civilian lives were lost to shootings by police over the past year.
But law enforcement uniformly hated the legislation, and law enforcement – especially in an election year when every campaign dollar counts – won, for now, when AB 931 was yanked from the Senate Appropriations Committee “suspense” file this past week by authors and amended to remove part of it that would have made it easier to prosecute officers.
Then the authors decided to retreat and make the bill a two-year battle, pulling it from consideration late this week.
“We’re disappointed, but not surprised,” according to a statement by a National Lawyers Guild Sacramento board member who has worked as a legal observer – monitoring the actions of law enforcement – at Sacramento area demonstrations and other 1st Amendment protected actions.
“Our legal observers have noted that police interactions that end up with injury to citizens often result from an unreasonable escalation by police officers. Sometimes an officer might be standing several feet away from a citizen, who is in a perfectly safe zone and posture, and then approach the citizen and begin a wrestling match. That can lead to officers allegedly feeling out of control of the situation and subsequently using excessive force, or deadly force.”
Several NLG Sacramento board members and legal observers, when contacted, agreed with that assessment, noting that “This bill definitely seemed to be a step in the right direction to protecting both citizens and police officers and to finally institute some responsibility on the part of officers to act reasonably throughout a citizen interaction, rather than escalate situations themselves and then react to the escalation.
“In Sacramento, not only are we in the State Capitol, but our communities know all too well the actual danger that citizens face from police officers and the lack of accountability when an incident occurs – from Stephon Clark, Joseph Mann, and others. It is sad to see the Legislature dodge, at least for now, this very real and pressing issue.”
BAIL REFORM. KINDA.
SB 10, which is predicted to shutter bail bond companies in the state, was approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.
But was it really a victory for social justice advocates who maintain that the bail system benefits the rich?
In fact, more than two-thirds of people in county and city jails in California are not convicted; they are awaiting trial but cannot “make bail,” an amount required by the courts to gain their freedom until trial. But if you’re wealthy, you have the moola get out. If not, you may languish – not convicted of anything – in a jail for months and even years before getting “your day in court.”
While the governor’s signature could spell the end for the bail bond companies – they claim 7,000 will lose their jobs and have introduced a statewide initiative to repeal SB 10 – even proponents of the measure are now claiming it may be a hollow victory, noting that people may still be held, perhaps even more than before, in “pretrial detention” if they can’t prove they’ll return to court.
The American Civil Liberties Union of California, a proponent of a no bail system, is charging that recent amendments that leave too much discretion to the courts sours the goal of the legislation.
“As much as we would welcome an end to the predatory lending practices of the for-profit bail industry, SB 10 cannot promise a system with a substantial reduction in pretrial detention. Neither can SB 10 provide sufficient due process nor adequately protect against racial biases and disparities that permeate our justice system,” the ACLU said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, this amended version of SB 10 is not the model for pretrial justice and racial equity that the ACLU of California envisioned, worked for, and remains determined to achieve. We oppose the bill because it seeks to replace the current deeply-flawed system with an overly broad presumption of preventative detention. This falls short of critical bail reform goals and compromises our fundamental values of due process and racial justice,” the ACLU added.