Bill introduced to grant public access to data on police shootings, sustained misconduct

This week, Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) introduced a bill co-sponsored by CNPA to peel back the state’s stringent secrecy protections afforded only to police officers who have fiercely lobbied against any laws permitting disclosures.

SB 1421 would grant the public access to documents related to any police shooting or other serious use of force. The Washington Post has reported that California regularly leads the nation in police shootings, by a long-shot. In 2017, 162 people were shot and killed by police in California, representing 16% of the nation’s deaths at the hands of law enforcement. That’s 93 more deaths than the next most deadly state-Texas, where 69 people were shot and killed by police.

Whether these shootings are justified and how officers are evaluated and disciplined is kept completely confidential under California law, which has some of the greatest secrecy protections for law enforcement in the country.
When Governor Jerry Brown signed these secrecy provisions into law in 1977, the goal was to preserve records as police agencies were destroying them to prevent civil litigants from effectively pursuing cases of police abuse. Today, these laws stand as an insurmountable impediment to the press and the public discovering information about a serious or deadly use of force by police.

Recent reporting by the Los Angeles Times on deputies’ history of misconduct provided a glimpse into the kind of information that has been regularly suppressed for the last 40 years. The Times’ reporting revealed that the county sheriff was unaware of misconduct by his own deputies, and led the Los Angeles district attorney to state that she was reexamining cases in which those officers were involved.

The shooting of Stephon Clark in Sacramento in recent weeks has given new urgency and increased visibility to the need for access to information about these critical incidents. Body camera and helicopter footage from that shooting was quickly released to the public, but the police chief’s hands are tied as to releasing information about the report, investigation and findings into the officers who killed Clark. SB 1421 would change that.

SB 1421 would also require the disclosure of information about sustained findings of misconduct if they relate to certain acts of dishonesty that affect an officer’s credibility, like perjury, filing a false report, or falsifying evidence, or acts of sexual assault while on the job.

SB 1421 will be heard by the Senate Public Safety Committee on April 17. Three members of the committee are co-authors of the bill.