California is the only state in the country that blocks prosecutors from seeing entire police personnel files. It's also one of 22 that keeps information on officer discipline from the public.
But now a list compiled by the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department of about 300 deputies with histories of dishonesty and misconduct has been obtained by the Los Angeles Times. The document is dated 2014, the year it was first put together by the then-sheriff, John Scott.
The Times cross-checked the list with court records and news reports to find out why the officers on it were placed there. The roster includes an officer who pepper-sprayed an elderly man, another who forced a woman he pulled over to perform oral sex on him, and one who doused a shirt with taco sauce to replace a bloodied shirt that went missing as evidence.
According to the Times, 69 percent of the officers were on the list for dishonesty. The top reasons after that were family violence, "immoral conduct," stealing, and sex.
The sheriff's department wanted to share the list with prosecutors to warn them of potentially problematic witnesses. Were the list shared with prosecutors, prosecutors would be obliged to share it with defense attorneys too. A police union—the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs—sued to keep the list private.
According to the Times, the officers on the list were potential witnesses in more than 62,000 felony cases since 2000. That represents a gross miscarriage of justice if even a small fraction of those cases actually saw these problem cops serve as witnesses.
There's an argument to be made that many of these officers shouldn't even be allowed to hold on to their jobs. One of the most effective ways to reduce police brutality is to remove problem cops as soon as they present themselves instead of waiting until they commit an unnecessary act of violence and then get defended anyway. Instead, layer upon layer of protection—state civil service rules, union contract provisions, and so on—often inoculate officers from any real consequences for their actions.
"Do we go back and overturn every conviction now?" Elizabeth Gibbons, an attorney who has represented the police union, asked the Times. "That's a can of worms that gets opened if the court adopts the department's argument in this case."
Well, yes: If the convictions are wrongful, they ought to be overturned. The criminal justice system should be centered on justice, not convenience. And if police misbehavior makes justice less convenient, that's an argument for removing bad cops sooner rather than later.
The police union thinks the list should be secret because it could harm bad cops' careers or threaten prosecutions in which they participated. But dishonest and abusive officers should see their careers harmed.