Starting next year, California law enforcement agencies will finally be subject to a bit more scrutiny and accountability. For years, law enforcement officers have been able to hide misdeeds behind super-restrictive public records laws — laws so restrictive even law enforcement’s best friends (i.e., prosecutors) couldn’t see them.
For the general public, this meant near total opacity. For criminal defendants, this meant rarely having the chance to impeach an officer’s testimony by offering evidence of past misconduct or routine untruthfulness.
Over the past few years, efforts have been made to roll back the restrictions built into California’s public records laws. All of these efforts died on the way to the governor’s desk, most riddled with rhetorical bullets fired by California police unions who claimed making this information public would endanger the lives of bad cops.
The status quo — in place for the last forty years — is being disrupted. Two bills have been signed by Governor Jerry Brown, creating holes in law enforcement’s law-enabled opacity.
Under the law, records involving “personnel, medical, or similar files of disclosure which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” were exempt from the public. Police records often fell into this category, with officer personnel records – such as use of force violations – subject to additional protection under the law.
Now with two new laws, SB-1421 and AB-748, the public has the opportunity to review records that were once exempt from oversight. Under SB-1421, law enforcement agencies are required to provide public access to records related to use of force, sexual assault complaints, and dishonesty in investigations and reporting of a crime. AB 748, authored by Assemblymember Phil Ting (D – San Francisco), supports Skinner’s bill by requiring the release of body camera footage within 45-days of a critical incident with a 30-day delay if a case is still pending.
The state’s police unions are still complaining about the new laws, calling the governor’s decision “reckless” and “disappointing.” But the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) goes even further, claiming the law requiring the release of body cam footage will encourage bad behavior by the usual suspects: people protected by the First Amendment.
Brian Marvel, President of the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC), representing more than 70,000 public safety members, said AB 748 creates significant problems by doing the following:
It jeopardizes the privacy of witnesses, which in today’s society is exceedingly difficult to have them come forward, given the bullying tactics of certain activists groups.
It invites the media to interfere with investigations and prosecutions by contacting witnesses, second guessing determinations, and driving a false narrative regarding an incident, all to sell newspapers and get clicks on their websites.
These arguments are pathetic. Anyone arguing their critics are serving up criticism “for the clicks” has already lost the battle. The best way to combat a “false” narrative is openness and transparency. If law enforcement agencies really wanted to set the record straight following a shooting, they’d proactively dump footage and documents. Instead, these agencies spent years hiding behind the state’s public records laws, only making long-delayed appearances to claim people criticizing an officer’s actions were wrong and were being misled by public enemy #1, the Fourth Estate.
It’s likely good law enforcement officers support this transparency. After all, nothing to hide is nothing to fear, as we’ve been told when rights are about to be violated. Trust is built through transparency and accountability. Law enforcement agencies have never been fans of either, which has directly resulted in the destroyed community relationships they show so little interest in fixing.
Legislation can start rebuilding the trust law enforcement agencies aren’t willing to repair. It’s perfectly understandable why they’d be opposed to these bills: they do have something to hide and lots to fear. But they’re public agencies, funded by taxpayers and supposedly answerable to those they serve. They haven’t been. Not by a long shot. But these new laws — which go into effect at the beginning of next year — will force agencies to begin addressing their more problematic employees. In the long run, it will work out better for everyone.