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New California Laws Peel Back Secrecy Surrounding Police Discipline Amid Pushback

by Betty Nelander

The tide is changing on police accountability and transparency in California with the passage and signing of the California Records Act (“SB-1421”) and Assembly Bill 748.

But SB-1421, which was scheduled to take effect January 1, 2019, has encountered pushback.

At least one community (Inglewood) has given its police the green light to destroy pre-January 1 records dating back to 1991, and another city (Los Angeles) insists the workload will be “exceptionally burdensome.” 

Under the new laws, the public will have access to records of officer-involved shootings and misconduct investigations, along with bodycam videos. While SB-1421 was to have taken effect with the new year, the San Bernardino County sheriff’s union says “because the law doesn’t specifically detail the time period that records should be public, it should apply only to new incidents,” the ocregister.com reports.

For decades, “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,” techdirt.com reports.

“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.” 

There’s a timetable, too.  Under AB 748, which goes into effect on July 1, 2019, bodycam footage must be released within 45 days of a “critical incident,” with “a 30-day delay if a case is still pending,” a measure added by Assemblyman Phil Ting. 

What will transparency mean? It is a step toward rebuilding the fractured trust between the public and the police and push these “agencies to begin addressing their more problematic employees,” techdirt.com notes.

After all, access to personnel records for evidence of any previous misconduct or “routine untruthfulness” will affect criminal cases.

Bill co-sponsors state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and the California News Publishers Association praise the new laws. They will allow the press to “fully investigate the activity of powerful public institutions,” Skinner has said.

“These bills mark, we hope, the beginning of the end of fraternally demanded rules allowing and even requiring the employers of California peace officers — police, sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors to keep their performance secret,” said Californians Aware General Counsel Terry Francke, “in effect protecting the tiny minority of the most unfit, corrupt and downright dangerous from public scrutiny, and to likewise shield those responsible for their hiring and retention from public accountability.”

Police unions call it a “‘bad bill on law enforcement,’” muckrock.com reports. “The State’s decision marks a long-time point of contention for police officer unions who have opposed the bills since the beginning.”

Cops cite privacy concerns. They might be reluctant to act in certain situations for fear their identities will be revealed, argue law enforcement associations. Witnesses may fail to come forward.

In a move that drew criticism, Inglewood aimed to destroy records before the new law became effective January 1, 2019.

And in San Bernardino County, the Sheriff’s Employees’ Benefit Association sought from the California Supreme Court an immediate order banning enforcement of the new law for incidents that took place before January 1. “So no shootings or other forms of misconduct from the past could be considered for release if the order is granted,” ocregister.com reports.  

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Sources: techdirt.com, ocregiser.com, courthousenews.com, muckrock.com

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