Fate of police records reform bills to be decided next week

Next Thursday, the Legislature will make decisions on hundreds of bills in the appropriations committees, including CNPA-sponsored bills AB 748 and SB 1421 which peel back some of the state’s most restrictive secrecy laws for police records.

Writing in support of the bills, the Mercury News Editorial Board said, “The constant secrecy undermines confidence in police, who carry deadly weapons and are entrusted with tremendous power. That responsibility should be accompanied by strict public accountability.”

California’s laws enabling police secrecy are currently under heightened scrutiny, due to high profile police shootings, like the one resulting in the death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, and news reporting in light of the disclosure of a list of 300 problem deputies in Southern California, including a story by the Los Angeles Times on how one deputy faked evidence by pouring taco sauce on a T-shirt and claiming it was blood. Countless stories like this never see the light of day due to the special rules applicable only to police personnel records.

SB 1421 by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would change those rules and loosen the vise on police records. The change in the law would facilitate access so journalists can uncover information about local policing. But even more, it would eliminate the secrecy that facilitates the continued employment of bad apple officers and help protect the integrity of the criminal justice system which is undermined when officers lie on the job.

For example, the L.A. Times reported this week that Deputy Jose Ovalle, who entered the taco sauce stained shirt into evidence, “took the stand in 31 cases before the district attorney’s office found out about his misconduct.”

SB 1421 ensures that when a sustained finding is made against an officer for such an act of dishonesty, that information will be publicly disclosed. It also mandates disclosure in confirmed cases of sexual assault, and when police use serious force against a member of the public.

The bill was placed on the suspense file this week, and its fate will be decided Thursday in the Assembly Appropriations Committee, led by Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego). CNPA is working to ensure that the bill survives the suspense calendar in its current form, and is preparing for a tough vote on the Assembly floor.

In the other house, the Senate Appropriations Committee, led by Senator Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), will determine the viability of AB 748 which amends the investigatory records exemption to the California Public Records Act to require the disclosure of audio or video footage that depicts a serious use of force by police.

The bill, authored by Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), would require the disclosure of actual investigatory records from police agencies, not just information contained within the records. This represents a substantial change to the law which is abused by police agencies across the state to regularly withhold documents like police reports, mug shots and 911 audio.
AB 748 is modeled after the policy enacted this year by the Los Angeles Police Department to require disclosure of body camera footage. As the Los Angeles Times’ editorial board pointed out this week, LAPD’s policy of quickly releasing footage of critical incidents is in line with a national trend to provide more transparency over law enforcement activities. But its effect is localized leaving Los Angeles County (and every other jurisdiction) to make up its own rules on disclosures including keeping footage completely secret.

Imposing a statewide minimum standard for disclosure would ensure that any police agency utilizing body cameras, or collecting other video or audio records, must disclose footage and cannot hide behind the investigatory records exemption. Taxpayer money funds body camera purchases, which police agencies justify by arguing that videos create transparency and accountability. By passing AB 748, the Legislature will ensure that this rhetoric is not undermined by actual practice.

If the hearing on AB 748 in the appropriations committee is any measure, the bill looks to be in jeopardy due to intense pressure from law enforcement lobbyists. The bill could be held on suspense in order to kill it under the auspices of its fiscal impact. CNPA is working to amend the bill to mitigate the costs cited by the Department of Finance in the hearing in an effort to alleviate the monetary burden on the state and help ensure the bill’s passage off suspense.

CNPA urges newspapers to continue to editorialize in support of SB 1421 and AB 748, and to seek comment from local legislators on their position on the bill. Editorial support and news articles like the one published by Black Voice News are crucial to CNPA’s efforts to reform the law on police records.

Please send copies of editorials published on either bill to Nikki Moore.