Police Abuse

Californians Will Finally Get Access to Records About Police Misconduct

Gov. Jerry Brown signs bills dramatically increasing transparency about law enforcement behavior.

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Fred Greaves/REUTERS/Newscom

For decades, California has kept police misconduct records exempt from public records requests, denying citizens (and even prosecutors and defense attorneys in court cases) easy access to information about law enforcement behavior.

Now that secrecy is coming to an end. This afternoon Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law S.B. 1421, sponsored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D–Berkeley). S.B. 1421 changes the rules to call for the release of police conduct (and misconduct) records in certain situations: if the officer discharged his or her gun in an incident; if the officer was involved in an incident that led to death or great bodily injury; if the officer had been found to have engaged in sexual assault with a member of the public (this includes any sexual act while on duty); and if the officer had been found to have engaged in dishonest practices, such as committing perjury, falsifying reports, or destroying or concealing evidence.

Today was the last day for Brown to sign or veto bills passed during the 2018 legislative season. He had been keeping mum about whether he'd sign on to this reform. He was responsible for signing the original bill back in 1978 that exempted police conduct reports from public view. What spooled out from that initial bill was an environment where citizens simply were not able to find out if an officer involved in a violent or otherwise controversial confrontation had a history of disciplinary problems. Even prosecutors and defense attorneys had to beg judges for information from the conduct records of officers put on the stand as witnesses.

This legislation represents a huge shift in the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the public in California. Police unions have fought for years to keep officers' bad conduct out of the public eye. They've been succeeding for a long time. This change will bolster pushes for transparency in other states (such as New York) that similarly conceal bad cop behavior from the public.

But there's more! Brown also signed A.B. 748, which will establish that police body camera footage is a public record under state law. As body cameras began to be implemented across the state, there wasn't an official state policy determining to what extent the public would be allowed to see the footage. So law enforcement agencies were making their own rules, and as you might expect, they typically decided to conceal what they had.

A.B. 748 will allow police to withhold body camera footage for 45 days if there's an ongoing investigation, and it puts a process into place to keep footage sealed longer if there is a good reason. It also puts guidelines into place to redact or edit footage that could violate the privacy of witnesses or victims. But the assumption now is going to be that all police body camera footage will eventually become public records.

Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the ACLU of California, shot out a celebratory statement this evening:

Together, SB 1421 and AB 748 will shine a much-needed light on police violence and abuse. Specifically, SB 1421 restores the public's right to know how departments investigate and hold accountable those officers who abuse their power to frame, sexually assault, or kill members of the public. AB 748 will ensure law enforcement agencies throughout the state release police recordings of serious uses of force, including body camera footage, which are valuable tools for civilian oversight at a time of growing concern with police violence.