California Lawmakers Push Back Against Police Secrecy

Even the police union-friendly California Senate says enough is enough.


It's dangerous to read too much into some small signs of sanity at the California state Capitol, but the death of two obnoxious police-secrecy bills in recent days remind us that there are indeed some limits to the groveling that California legislators will do to earn the favor of law-enforcement unions.

The fate of these bills—along with some protests and other actions taking place across the state—might also be a sign that the state's residents are ready for a wider debate about some core civil liberties issues, something that has been in short supply since the 9/11 attacks encouraged Americans to put their security above their freedoms.

Democratic and Republican politicians depend on the support of the uniformed unions, and fear being labeled as soft-on-crime, which means that these special-interest groups get whatever they demand. There's a reason those six-figure pensions are so common. But the problem goes well beyond pension spiking and other financial matters.

Last week, the Senate Governance and Finance Committee killed AB2299, which would have allowed police officers, correctional officers, prosecutors, and judges to keep their names off of public property records. Approved by the Assembly 68-0, the bill was based on the unproven idea that criminals look up the home addresses of public safety officials and then attack them—even supporters couldn't come up with examples of this having happened.

Had it passed, the bill would have undermined the public property record system and would have been an open-door for real estate scams. The legislators who voted for this knew better, but they weren't about to stand up to these unions. Yet sanity did prevail. It also prevailed with AB1275, which would have banned the media from getting copies of transcripts and tapes of 911 calls.

The legislation, also killed in a Senate committee, was a reaction to the release of an emergency call made by actress Demi Moore and was supposedly designed to spare citizens embarrassment. But the real result would have been protecting law enforcement officials from scrutiny over their handling of emergency situations.

In the past, these bills would have moved forward with little scrutiny, but this police-union overreach grabbed wider attention and sparked the dismay of editorial boards across California. We all know that secrecy is the petri dish for misbehavior, yet the unions continue to push bills that shield their members from oversight. It's already nearly impossible to learn what actually happened in the many instances where police use deadly force thanks to the peace officers bill of rights and other special protections.

Let's say we saw the following headlines: "Surge seen in shootings of Sacramento deputies" and "Killings of police in LA County jump sharply." Everyone in the state would be well aware of this data. The Capitol would rightly be awash in proposals to protect officers from the carnage.

Those headlines are close to accurate, except one word was changed. The real headlines are (from the Sacramento Bee): "Surge seen in shootings by Sacramento County deputies," and (from the Los Angeles Times), "Killings by police in LA County jump sharply." There's a trend here.

Police have broad latitude to use deadly force. Thanks to the above-mentioned peace officers' bill of rights and the 2006 state Supreme Court's Copley Press v. San Diego decision, the public and media have virtually no access to allegations of wrongdoing or investigations against police officers. We see only what police agencies want us to see, and only through the civil litigation process do crucial details emerge. The latter is no panacea given that agencies often provide financial compensation in exchange for nondisclosure.

In Sacramento, complacent official attitudes toward police use of force issues may contribute to the problem. District Attorney Jan Scully halted all investigations of police-involved shootings, a shocking dereliction of duty that she blames on budget cuts, but is a sop to police unions.

These huge jumps in officer-involved shootings may be statistical anomalies, but the pattern is spread across various jurisdictions. "The high number of killings last year underscores a pronounced jump in the overall number of occasions in which officers fired their weapons at suspects," the Los Angeles Times reported.

While most shootings appear justified (especially given the wide latitude given officers), there is no trend justifying the increase. "The rise in killings by police is all the more notable because it occurred at a time when the overall number of homicides in the area had fallen to historic lows," the Times added. "With 612 people killed in the county last year, nearly 1 in every 10 such deaths occurred at the hands of law enforcement officers."

It's about time for a public debate about these numbers and about the degree to which extreme protections for officials may have led to an increased willingness to use deadly force. In many cases, the victims were unarmed.

In Anaheim, the city announced that all officer-involved shootings will be subject to outside review. A daily vigil held by family members of various people killed by the city's police has kept pressure on the city. In the June 5 election, Fullerton residents recalled three council members who they believed were complicit in protecting officers who beat to death an unarmed homeless man—captured in horrifying detail on video.

In recent days, Rodney King—the victim of an infamous police beating 20 years ago that led to Los Angeles riots—was found dead at home. The riots led to some police reforms but also hardened attitudes by the public. The 9/11 attacks and continued pushing of the envelope by police unions pushed the pendulum further in the law-and-order direction. Maybe now it will swing back a bit in the other direction.

When even the union-dominated California Senate says enough is enough, there may indeed be reason for optimism.

Steven Greenhut is vice president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.