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California Police Unions Balk at New Law Requiring Transparency in Officer-Involved Shootings and Use-of-Force Incidents

by Chad Marks

California police unions are bringing their fight against a new transparency law -- Senate Bill 1421 -- to the courts, suing local governments in what looks like a losing battle in their attempt to keep the public from accessing records involving possible misconduct.

January 1, 2019, brought with it passage of the California Public Records Act, which requires law enforcement agencies to make public records of officer-involved shootings, use of force that results in great bodily harm, and sexual misconduct.

Police unions have filed lawsuits seeking court orders that say SB 1421 does not apply retroactively. Rains Lucia Stern, a California law office that represents several police unions, sought an injunction from the California Supreme Court to block every law enforcement agency in the state from applying the legislation retroactively. In less than a month, the court issued an order declining to hear the case.

This was not their only failure in the courts. On February 8, Contra Costa Superior Court also rejected an attempt to sidestep the law. The unions argued that the law can only apply to records after January 1, 2019. The court said the law applied retroactively.

What is there to hide from the public? Apparently the police unions are attempting to keep certain records confidential.

Some unions might want to hide facts associated with investigations.

Consider the killing of 24-year-old Richard Perez by Richmond police officer Wallace Jensen. The officer in that shooting death said Perez reached for his firearm during a physical confrontation. Witnesses said Perez simply tried to get away from Jensen. While Jensen was cleared of any wrongdoing by his department, a Richmond civilian police review board’s report found that the officer violated policy and needlessly used deadly force. If the union loses its court battle, these civilian review board records may very well become available to the public.

In 2016, an internal investigation into the conduct of 11 Richmond officers revealed that some of its officers were found to have sexually exploited a teenage girl. The public never saw the records of that internal investigation.

Police unions are attempting to keep the public from having access to records related to when police officers fire their weapons, commit sexual assault, proposition sex while on duty or engage in dishonesty in an investigation. All things that the new law says should be made available to California citizens.

The unions want to hide officers’ past from the public and start anew. Los Angeles County Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff issued an order that records of officers’ past are public no matter when they were created.

Senate Bill 1421 orders police transparency, and it seems the courts are heading in the direction that the legislation was meant to be retroactive.


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