By David M. Greenwald
Sacramento, CA – Last week Governor Newsom signed SB 16, legislation that significantly expands public access to police misconduct records and strengthens communities’ ability to hold law enforcement agencies accountable.
Building on SB 1421 signed in 2018, which opened access to a limited set of police records in California for the first time in more than 40 years, SB 16 expands the categories of police records the public can access and closes loopholes that keep misconduct records under wraps.
“SB 1421 was narrow, just three types of misconduct,” Senator Nancy Skinner told the Vanguard in a phone interview on Friday. “When we think about public safety, there are officers that we rely on to serve our communities and to ensure public safety.
“They can only do it if they have the trust of the community… The purpose of transparency in police conduct is to help build back that trust.. and as they say, sunshine is one of the best disinfectants.”
This was part of a package of police reform bills that also included SB 2 by Senator Steven Bradford to allow the state to decertify a police officer when the officer engages in serious misconduct.
“The laws Gov. Newsom signed today, including SB 16 and SB 2, will hold law enforcement accountable and help restore public trust in California policing. Public trust is eroded when an agency hides their officers’ bad behavior or allows police who engage in serious wrongdoing to remain on the streets,” said Senator Skinner.
She added, “My bill, SB 16, ensures that we have the right to know when an officer uses excessive force or engages in racist or biased behavior. And Sen. Bradford’s SB 2 ensures that officers with egregious records no longer have the privilege of wearing a badge in our state.”
Reformers believe that the two bills will work in tandem to address a longstanding problem in California policing, in which officers accused of misconduct can quit their jobs and be hired by another police agency that is not aware of the officer’s alleged bad behavior.
SB 16 applies in cases where the officer has a history of biased or discriminatory behavior, a history of use of excessive force, or a history of unlawful arrests or searches.
Under previous law, there was no way to decertify police officers who engaged in serious misconduct or were serial offenders of department’s rules and the law.
Instead, what would often happen is they would get fired at one agency and then rehired at another.
Senator Skinner explained, “The other benefit of this is that the bill also requires when a hiring entity, if you’re hiring an officer who’s worked in California, you have to request the records from their previous agency.”
Too often when an officer with a history of excessive use of force is hired by a new agency, “the local agency says, we didn’t know, well, now they can’t, they won’t be able to say that,” the senator said.
SB 1421, while opening the door, only opened the records in very limited incidents and it proved at times very difficult for media or members of the public to receive those records.
California has often been criticized for being among the most difficult states in the country to get police records.
Senator Skinner said, “In California our Public Records Act for non-law enforcement employees, you can get almost any kind of record. Whereas it was very limited—there was no records pre-1421. It was very limited with 1421 and now it’s much better.”
Under the new law:
- Opens access to sustained findings on officers who used force that was unreasonable or excessive or failed to intervene when another officer used unreasonable or excessive force
- Provides access to sustained findings on officers who engaged in racist or biased behavior or conducted unlawful arrests or searches
- Increases the length of time agencies must keep records of sustained findings of misconduct from five to 15 years
- Requires that records be released if an officer quits before a misconduct investigation is complete
- Mandates agencies, before hiring a candidate who has prior law enforcement experience, to review that officer’s prior history of complaints, disciplinary hearings, and uses of force
- Bars agencies from claiming attorney-client privilege to keep otherwise public records secret
- Requires records to be made public no later than 45 days from the date of a request for their release
- Prohibits agencies from charging more than the actual cost of copying records
“Bad behavior goes unchecked when police can operate in secret. We have the right to know if and when a local officer engages in misconduct,” Senator Skinner said. “SB 16—it sends a clear message that officers who engage in racist or discriminatory behavior are not welcome in our communities.”
SB 16 takes effect on Jan. 1, 2022, but public agencies will have a one-year grace period—until Jan. 1, 2023—to make public the newly disclosable records for incidents that occurred before Jan. 1, 2022.