California Wants Transparency From Trump, but Won't Release State Police Records

Xavier Becerra conceals bad behavior by cops in his state, and even threatens journalists attempting to expose them.


Xavier Becerra
Lenin Nolly/EFE/Newscom

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (D) has been openly making political hay out of suing President Donald Trump. He's filed more than 40 lawsuits against the Trump administration, targeting, among other things, federal environmental regulation changes, Department of Education policies on for-profit colleges, and, of course, everything Trump has done to try to scale back immigration into the United States or punish sanctuary cities.

One of those lawsuits is about the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) lack of cooperation with a Freedom of Information Act request for documents detailing immigration enforcement practices. In brief, Becerra is suing to get access to records that might shed light on behavior he and others think might be abusive towards people within the state that are in the custody of federal law enforcement.

Meanwhile, Becerra, like several law enforcement agencies within the state, is essentially refusing to cooperate with new state rules that open records that detail investigations of police conduct and misconduct. California's attorney general wants to reveal federal DHS abuses, but is actively obstructing efforts to reveal bad behavior by law enforcement officers who serve California.

Last year, lawmakers passed SB 1421, a bill that amends public records laws to provide access to documentation about police officer conduct in a number of situations, such as when that officer killed somebody in the line of duty or fired a weapon; was found to have engaged sexual assault on the job; or when that officer had engaged in dishonest practices in the line of work (concealing or fabricating evidence, for example, or committing perjury). For decades, California law exempted such records from public view, making it next to impossible for citizens (and even prosecutors and defenders handling cases involving these officers as witnesses) to know details about officers who have histories of bad behavior.

After SB 1421 was implemented, law enforcement unions fought back, insisting that the law is not retroactive—that it only covers records from 2019 onward. This was not the intent of the bill's author, and right now judges across the state are hearing arguments on this matter. Becerra has apparently taken the side of the police unions and the California Department of Justice is refusing to release any records in its custody that detail police misconduct prior to 2019.

Becerra is now being sued by the state's First Amendment Coalition for refusing to disclose the relevant records. The same organization recently won in Contra Costa County against police unions trying to block the law's full implementation.

Becerra's protection of police misconduct doesn't stop there. A couple of journalists in Berkeley, California, got their hands on the state's list of law enforcement officers who have been convicted of crimes over the past decade. There's nearly 12,000 of them, and the details are being kept by the state so that law enforcement agencies can check the backgrounds of potential officers when they apply for jobs.

The journalists got these records in response to a public information request last month. You'd think that the criminal history of police officers would be a public record and certainly of public interest. But Becerra's response was extraordinary. He told the journalists that they did not have a right to see the list and furthermore his office threatened them with legal action unless they destroyed the records. The journalists have refused.

The East Bay Times takes note:

"It's disheartening and ominous that the highest law enforcement officer in the state is threatening legal action over something the First Amendment makes clear can't give rise to criminal action against a reporter," said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that advocates for free speech and open records.

The documents provide a rare glimpse at the volume of officer misconduct at a time of heightened interest over police accountability. The list includes cops who trafficked drugs, cops who stole money from their departments and even one who robbed a bank wearing a fake beard. Some sexually assaulted suspects. Others took bribes, filed false reports and committed perjury. A large number drove under the influence of drugs and alcohol—sometimes killing people on the road.

An opinion piece at The Mercury News notes that unions representing police and prison correctional officers have spent more than $500,000 helping Becerra's re-election campaign last fall. He's insisting that this is all about caution—that the state faces lawsuits from police officers unless the court rules that the record disclosures are not retroactive.

On that front, there is continuing good news for fans of transparency. A Los Angeles judge ruled last week in favor of open government and media groups arguing that SB 1421 is retroactive, attempting to get access to records of both the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. (Disclosure: Reason has requested discipline records for L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva and has been denied thus far due to these court actions.) The unions are appealing, and it won't be a surprise if the case goes all the way up to the state Supreme Court.