Records detailing police misconduct and serious use of force, long kept confidential, could become public in California if legislation announced Friday is passed into law.
State Sen. Mark Leno, seeking to tighten accountability amid a national conversation over police shootings and a push for law enforcement reform in San Francisco, introduced a bill that would roll back a 1978 law and subsequent Supreme Court rulings that prompted cities to close police disciplinary cases to the media and the public.
“We’ve reached a critical point in the public’s perception of how law enforcement is doing its critically important work,” Leno said at a news conference in San Francisco, where he was joined not only by police watchdogs and progressive city supervisors but District Attorney George Gascón, a former city police chief.
Harry Stern, an attorney who represents officers around the Bay Area, slammed the proposal, linking it to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ recent approval of a day of remembrance for Mario Woods, the stabbing suspect whose video-recorded killing by police sparked protests and a federal review of the city force.
Under the Increasing Law Enforcement Transparency bill, the public would be allowed access to records of serious instances of use of force — those that cause death or serious bodily injury — and records of sustained charges of misconduct, including sexual assault, racial profiling, job dishonesty, violation of rights and illegal search or seizure.
Nathan Ballard, an adviser for the union, said that while officers support efforts to bring transparency — including having officers wear body cameras — the union will oppose legislation seeking “to undo the California Supreme Court’s ruling that protects police officers’ privacy interests.”
Gascón, whose relationship with the police force has grown increasingly tense, said his experience as police chief in San Francisco as well as in Mesa, Ariz., where state law granted public access to disciplinary records, proved to him that such laws “do not harm the well-being of police officers.”
“As a career law enforcement officer who spent 30 years in policing, I can tell you that good police officers do not fear transparency,” Gascón said. […]
Alison Berry Wilkinson, an attorney who represented the Berkeley Police Officers Association when the union fought to close police-misconduct proceedings, said a reversal could have damaging side effects, including on public safety.
California law regarding law enforcement records has been restrictive since the 1970s, when a state Supreme Court decision led to a police union-led push for confidentiality measures.
In 2003, the San Diego Union-Tribune filed a lawsuit when reporters were denied access to an appeals hearing for a county sheriff’s deputy who had been fired. Superior Court, held that the public had no right to obtain records of administrative appeals in police disciplinary cases — and ended all local government practices that opened disciplinary hearings.
An effort to undo the Copley decision by then-Assemblyman Leno and then-Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, stalled in an Assembly hearing in 2007 after heavy lobbying from the law enforcement community.
The 2007 bill was the one I supported before I gave up on the idea of reform. I went to Sacramento and everything. The place was crawling with cops. You could barely get in the building. I would have spoken at the hearing but the physical thickness of the crowd of pigs stopped me.
I heard state workers talking about the massive influx of money from the pork lobby to anyone who would take it in order to block the bill which only mildly mitigated the special confidentiality rights that police were given way back in the 70s.
During the 90s, cities were trying out civilian review boards to hear the complaints of people suffering under rampant abuse by police. Without the ability to make public their findings, the departments have no incentive whatsoever to take seriously the recommendations of an appointed review board made up of the very people they enjoy beating on so much.