Hiding Police Officer Misconduct Becoming Harder in California

public recordsFor decades, the state of California has had some of the strictest laws regarding the release of information about the discipline of police officers to the public. Given the increasing number of high-profile cases of police misconduct in the state, the time has come to change the rules and make this information more readily available.

In 2016 Sen Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) sponsored SB 1286 that was intended to ease up on the rules surrounding the release of officer information to the public. In most cases, police departments and most police officers seemed to be in full support of the bill. Most saw this as a great way to improve relations between police departments and the communities they serve. Leno said, ” We can begin to rebuild the critically needed trust between law enforcement and community members. I don’t think it’s at all debatable that that trust has come into question.”

Public Access
This bill would have made it possible for members of the general public to access reports written by Internal Affairs regarding officers who had been found guilty of a number of different forms of misconduct. These would include lying on the job, racial profiling, sexual assault, and many more. At the same time, the public could access records of major use-of-force crimes and officer-involved shootings.

Despite the popularity in many circles, it was met with significant resistance from law enforcement groups and in the end defeated. Leno has dedicated a large portion of his time in office in trying to unravel California’s police confidentiality laws. To be sure, officers do have the same rights to privacy as any other citizen, but at the same time, they are held to a much higher standard because they are public employees.

Leno truly believed that by opening up these records to the public, it would help to rebuild the trust that has so recently been eroded due to the rising number of officer-involved shootings and high-profile excessive use-of-force cases. He hoped that achieving this in California might have a ripple effect across the country, helping to restore the trust in law enforcement officers everywhere.

The Problem
Many law enforcement organizations refused to support SB 1286 as they believed that allowing the public to have access to these records would violate the officer’s right to privacy. They also believed that the existing civilian review boards and the possibility of prosecution offered by them provided the public with enough accountability. Craig Lally, President of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, had this to say, ” Strong relationships between the community and law enforcement is critical to good policing. However, SB 1286 was poorly written, with no input from law enforcement and would have done nothing to improve relationships with the community.”

While the failure of this bill did indeed continue to protect the privacy of California law enforcement officers, it has done little to instill a much-needed sense of trust in the public. The intent of the bill was only to allow members of the public to access files with information regarding officers who had been investigated and possibly charged with gross misconduct and criminal action, not to provide them with access to every officer’s private information. Perhaps a new and more well-written version of this bill will soon be introduced that offers the right level of protection while at the same time helps to restore the public’s trust.

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