Police Abuse

Boosting Police Transparency in California

Last serious effort nine years ago was crushed by police lobbying, but times are different


One of the most depressing legislative hearings in California I've ever attended took place in 2007 in the Assembly Public Safety Committee, as legislators considered a fairly modest bill that would have allowed the public release of information about alleged police misbehavior. The fix was in before the hearing even started.

Police lobbyists and union officials were given reserved seats at the front. As I reported at the time, some onlookers in attendance openly mocked the people who showed up to support the transparency bill. The committee chairman gave a rambling chat defending police.

Republicans joined Democrats in refusing to allow a vote—and the bill died without any ayes or nays recorded that day. The bill, SB 1019, was designed to mostly overturn a 2006 decision in Copley Press v. Superior Court. In that California Supreme Court case, this newspaper sought access to the disciplinary proceedings in which a San Diego County deputy sheriff was appealing his removal from the force.

In finding the hearings to be closed, the court shut down public access to information about law-enforcement officials accused of misbehavior. Police organizations have celebrated the subsequent privacy rights they gained. Critics believe such official secrecy has exacerbated a growing lack of trust in law enforcement—the fruits of which we've seen in public protests about shootings and other incidents over the last several years.

After all, the public can no longer easily learn whether, say, an officer who shot to death a suspect has been involved in previous shootings—or whether he or she has been repeatedly accused of using excessive force or involved in misconduct. It has taken nine years, but state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is back with a new version of a police accountability bill. It wouldn't just overturn Copley, but SB 1286 would give the public a better chance to learn about officers credibly accused of misbehavior.

The bill would allow local governments to hold these disciplinary hearings publicly. It would give the public access to records of allegations of past misbehavior that was sustained after an internal investigation was conducted. Record requirements would apply to use-of-force incidents, any alleged violations of citizens's rights or allegations of on-the-job dishonesty. Public agencies would be able to access a broader range of confidential records.

Members of the public who file complaints about an officer would finally have the right to learn about the status of their complaint. At a press conference in San Francisco last week, the city's district attorney, George Gascón, said "California is among a minority of states that makes police records confidential," which he believes "has a detrimental effect on our public safety."

That's a common theme from supporters. "So much has gone on to distort the community's trust in policing," said Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "The good work that 99 percent of police officers are doing is tainted by the bad behavior of the 1 percent because the bad cops are allowed to operate in secret."

The bill may face tough going. Last session, several meaningful bills dealing with police behavior received initial support, only to be crushed in ways similar to what took place in that Assembly committee. In one instance, opponents derailed legislation to promote the use of body cameras by officers after legislators and lobbyists hijacked it and rewrote it to give police the right to review the video before filing their reports.

Last year, police lobbies killed a bill to require agencies to follow California's asset-forfeiture law and gain a conviction before taking people's homes, cars and personal property. Currently, police agencies often circumvent state law by partnering with federal agencies and then splitting the loot. That lets them conform to the much-less stringent federal standards, which allow property to be taken from those never convicted or even accused of a crime.

Supporters of the transparency bill say that the current climate is much different from 2007 and that even those asset-forfeiture and body camera bills may have better chances this year than last year.

The big question is whether—following the national backlash after some prominent police use-of-force incidents—legislators from both parties sense enough of a shift in opinion to take on some of the Capitol's most-powerful interest groups. I'd guess the bill's findings would be widely supported by most Californians:

"To empower peace officers to fulfill their mission, the people of California vest them with extraordinary authority… Concealing crucial public safety matters such as officer violations of civilians' rights, or inquiries into deadly use of force incidents, undercuts the public's faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement… The public has a strong, compelling interest in law enforcement transparency because it is essential to having a just and democratic society."

We'll soon see if such high-brow ideas can withstand the more low-brow art of lobbying.

NEXT: Marco Rubio Has Trouble Remembering How the Debate Over Libya Went

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  1. Isn’t that cute.

  2. a new bill seeks to increase police transparency by, among other things, making disciplinary hearings public.

    Good luck with passing *that*.


  4. You don’t understand. It’s not a lack of transparency that is causing the public to lose faith in their police. It is the media’s fault for running stories that portray cops in a bad light. It’s all the fault of the media. The police never did anything to deserve this lack of trust. So allowing more access to information about cops will simply give the media more ammunition to use in their war against cops. This will foster even more distrust against the police, which will put the safety of our police officers at risk. Being that officer safety is the single most important thing in the world, this bill must not pass.

    1. They are afraid to do their jobs now, for fear of unfair media coverage. Which means crime is going up. Is that what you want ? Hater.

  5. The 99% are powerless to change the situation. If you don’t like it, next time you need a cop, call a hippie. Because cops are out there every day keeping us safe. Risking their lives. Spit second decisions. Insert random cliche here.

    1. Do you have the hippies number ?

  6. Our country was designed to operate on a limited government platform. Are the police not part of the government? Your individual rights are more likely to be violated by this un-elected group than almost any other sector of government. There are many dangerous and important jobs in the private sector,and those who perform them are well paid, but not given special privileges and immunity from consequence when they behave rashly. Why should police be any different? Any group would try very hard to maintain the status quo if they were in the position that police and their unions are in now, it is human nature. We must break this lobby and work to reign them in, if we deserve to still call ourselves Americans.

  7. From below: “officer safety is the single most important thing in the world.” Uh, no. I’m a strong supporter of law enforcement, but – like my fellow Marines – what they protect is more important than their lives.

    1. Not from the point of view of cops. There is nothing more important than their lives. If a million innocents have to die to save one police officer’s life, then it is totally worth it. We are peasants to them. We exist to serve them. Any peasant who fails to immediately comply with an order from one of the king’s men has forfeited their life. It is only by the grace of the knight that a peasant may live to see another day. We live in a feudal system where the king’s men can kill his subjects with impunity. Only the costumes have changed.

      1. You generalize with impunity. It’s hardly fair to cast all cops in such a role. It weakens your position and makes you sound petty.

      2. Well, in fairness, I think their pension might be the most important thing to them.

  8. RE: Boosting Police Transparency in California

    Any good socialist will tell you that police transparency will not work in a socialist state. Otherwise the unwashed masses will recognize the government monopoly police force as the bad guys who work exclusively for the ruling elitist filth.
    Every socialist worth his copy of “Das Kapital” will tell you that is not a good idea because it will humiliate the powers that be and illuminate their insatiable lust to control us little people.

  9. To make California cops more transparent, we should not only make them wear cameras, but also make them wear flatscreen tv’s on their backs to display what the cameras are seeing.

  10. What libertarians want from police:
    Officers who know constitutional law backwards and forwards, never allow their power, daily contact with criminals, fear of being assaulted/killed, outside stress or any other factor to ever influence their behavior when dealing with anyone at anytime, always use the exact amount of necessary force perfectly and do all this while being called pig, racist, motherfuckers or other endearing term while earning a paycheck that is often a joke. Gee, we don’t ask much, do we?

    1. That is exactly what I want, expect, and the American People deserve.

      As a member of the military I expect and demand to be held to that standard. If I’m having a bad day and call in an airstrike on a civilian target, I go to jail. If you lack the strength and self awareness to do the job then leave, period.

      1. Calling an air strike is not the same as having your finger on a trigger and having to make a split second decision. I know, cause I served in the military and as a 25 year LEO. My point is that we as libertarians need to access some of our expectations against reality.

        1. I disagree. I had to make split second decisions as to how we delivered fires. If I’m incompetent and make the wrong call, and someone dies that’s on me. Tough shit if I had to make fast decision. It’s on me to slow it down, or create systems to ensure the correct choice is made when lives are on the line.

          As I said, if you can’t hack it, and have a finger on a trigger cause you are afraid then find another line of business. Fear is part of the job, either make friends with it and grow or leave.

          We should hold those who have been given a weapon by the state to a higher not lower standard than their fellow citizens.

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