By Ayanna Gandhi
SACRAMENTO – “California police need to come clean on abuse records,” wrote California State Senator Nancy Skinner in an opinion article to the East Bay Times recently, noting that her newest demand of law enforcement stemmed from a failure, despite a 2018 law, with law enforcement “agencies still drag(ing) their feet or refuse to release documents.”
In 2018, Skinner wrote Senate Bill SB 1421 which stated that officers would and must be held accountable by their agencies and the people. Thanks to the bill, in recent years, past events that were unjust and hidden have come to light.
For example, “Two Santa Clara County corrections officers choked and abused individuals held in county jail and then tried to cover it up. Contra Costa County prosecutors were forced to dismiss criminal cases because an Antioch detective leaked confidential information to known criminals. A Los Angeles County sheriff’s detective’s history of dishonesty jeopardized dozens of criminal convictions, including murder cases. A Capitola patrol sergeant sent hundreds of lewd texts to a young female police volunteer.”
In the Senator’s Aug. 4 Op-Ed she writes,
“These disturbing revelations and more only became public in the past year due to Senate Bill 1421, which I authored in 2018. After four decades of secrecy on all police records, SB 1421 gave Californians public access to records on a very limited set of actions taken by police and other law enforcement who serve our communities.”
As seen from the past hidden events which have finally been uncovered, “SB 1421 has worked as intended [for the most part]: Law enforcement agencies up and down the state have released troves of records, shining a light on officers who committed sexual assault, tampered with evidence or fired their weapons, allowing we the people the opportunity to hold both police and police agencies accountable.”
However, she explains, “even with the limited set of records SB 1421 allowed, many agencies dragged their feet or simply refused to release records. For example, the Bay Area News Group last month had to file a lawsuit against the San Jose Police Department, which had said it would take years to review and release more than 80 files from 2014-19. Other police departments have obstructed the intent of SB 1421 by charging exorbitant fees or releasing records with so much content blacked out as to be nearly useless.”
In addition, some offices are finding loopholes.
Skinner said the bill “doesn’t allow us to find out about officers who engage in racist behavior or conduct wrongful arrests and searches. It also left a glaring hole: Some officers who commit misconduct quit their force before disciplinary investigations are complete, allowing them to keep their records secret as they seek jobs with other departments.”
Skinner acknowledged SB 1421’s flaws and, has introduced a new bill, SB 776.
Skinner suggested one large event is what pushed her to propose this new bill.
“After the killing of George Floyd, we learned that Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer responsible, had a documented history of misconduct complaints and uses of force, making it even more clear that communities deserve to know about the actions of officers who police them,” she said.
SB 776 is scheduled for its first hearing, and would go further than current law in many ways, including:
- Expanding public access to all records involving an officer’s use of force, dishonesty related to criminal investigations, and on-the-job sexual assault.
- Opening all disciplinary records involving officers who engage in racist or biased behavior.
- Requiring records to be released even when an officer quits before an investigation is complete.
- Providing access to records on wrongful arrests and wrongful searches.
- Mandating that agencies, before hiring a candidate who has prior law enforcement experience, review that officer’s prior history of complaints, disciplinary hearings and uses of force.
- Stopping the practice of keeping records for only five years.
- Prohibiting agencies from charging more than the actual cost of copying records.
- Establishing monetary damages and fines for agencies that don’t comply.
Skinner justifies her constant demand for transparency, noting, “Most police officers perform their jobs with honor and dignity. But we can’t ignore the fact that years of hiding officer misconduct has resulted in a crisis of faith in law enforcement in this country.”
However, she makes sure to emphasize that is “heartening to see California’s police officers union, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, taking steps to embrace police accountability reform.”
The group, she said, “now supports aspects of SB 776, including the need to conduct thorough background checks on prospective hires, even when those officers quit other departments before discipline hearings were finished.”
“If we intend to restore trust in police, we must hold officers — and agencies — accountable when they do wrong. The best way to do that is to help agencies and officers come clean by enacting SB 776,” she said.
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