One Year After It Passed, California's Police Accountability Law Is Working

In requiring greater transparency in police record-keeping, California proves it can do at least one thing right.


There's precious little bipartisan agreement on anything these days, but there's one area where liberals and conservatives ought to be in lockstep: Government officials—whether they work for the IRS, state or federal environmental agencies, the NSA, the local sheriff's or police department or whatnot—ought to be held accountable when they break the law or mistreat people.

We can argue all day about the proper size of government, but officials should only take our property—or our lives—in the most extreme circumstances. The public ought to know when the people who work for us abuse their authority. Oversight and accountability are fairly basic concepts, but they remain some of the most hotly contested subjects in the state Capitol.

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary," wrote James Madison in the Federalist Papers (No. 51). "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." As someone who has covered government for most of my career, I can guarantee that angels do not govern us. Madison gave "the people" the responsibility of keeping our rulers on a short leash. The public, however, needs the tools to do so.

In 2006, the California Supreme Court ruled against a newspaper publisher that was trying to gain access to a disciplinary hearing in which a deputy was appealing termination. In the Copley decision, the court declared that the public has "no constitutional right to have access to particular government information, or to require openness from the bureaucracy."

In the ensuing years, police unions used the verdict to destroy the key tool that we have: information.  California quickly became the most secretive state when it came to the behavior of police officials—those who are on the front line of enforcing the laws. The results are obvious and disturbing. It took a dozen years, but civil libertarians and other good-government activists finally secured the passage of a law that gutted the worst aspects of that 2006 ruling.

Senate Bill 1421 required that police agencies release reports or findings related to police officers' discharge of a firearm or serious use of force, as well as sustained incidents by officers of sexual assault or dishonesty. The law was signed in 2018 but went into effect on Jan. 1, 2019.

Many police agencies and the state's top cop, Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra, shamefully resisted complying with the clear edicts in the measure. Fortunately, the nation's founders created a system of checks and balances and the courts have consistently sided with public disclosure. Over the past year, a lot of the long-withheld information has been published in this and other newspapers across California. The news reports have been eye-opening and anger-inducing.

Here's a snippet from one report from the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley: "They drove drunk, cheated on time cars, brutalized family members, even killed others with their recklessness on the road. But thanks to some of the weakest laws in the country for punishing police misconduct, the Golden State does nothing to stop these officers from enforcing the law." We learned about a system that allowed officers who were convicted of crimes, many of them serious, to plead down to misdemeanor charges so they could continue to patrol our streets.

Scores of similar articles have been published based on SB 1421. Internal documents obtained recently by the Sacramento Bee found that deputies working at two Sacramento area correctional facilities faced "allegations of beatings, misuse of pepper spray, an illegal body cavity search, efforts to avoid being caught on video surveillance and recommendations of deputy discipline and firings." None of the deputies reportedly were fired.

A San Jose Mercury News report last month found that 10 percent of the state's police agencies didn't even bother to investigate incidents that "included 16 fatal shootings, three deaths following fights with officers, and nine nonfatal events." Those agencies that did investigate the incidents showed a "stark range of thoroughness, from a scant single-page checklist to an in-depth analysis of whether officers followed their training, used correct tactics and employed deadly force only as a last resort."

Here's some fodder for those interested in the partisan aspects of the matter. The Democratic-controlled Legislature always is seeking to expand government power by passing more laws that regulate virtually everything we do, but then seems stunned when it finds that those who enforce the laws behave poorly. Likewise, Republicans often complain about intrusive government, yet only a handful of GOP lawmakers voted for a measure that would help the public keep tabs on their government officials.

There's little doubt that the passage of SB 1421 is one of the most significant reforms that the state has passed in my many years of covering the Legislature. Not much good comes out of Sacramento, but it's worth celebrating the rare instance when it does.

This column was first published in the Orange County Register.