Police misconduct disclosure bill passes out of Senate Committee

Following emotional testimony from the public and several senators, an effort to make public records about all police shootings and some misconduct passed out of the Public Safety committee on a 5-2 vote.

SB 1421 is authored by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), and is the fourth effort by CNPA to sponsor legislation to change the law on disclosure of police records following the Copley Press decision in 2006.

Susan Leff, Nevada County Public Defender, testified in support of SB 1421, noting the impact of the Copley case: “Before Copley Press … the media could see what we were doing. And I sadly remember the day in June of 2006 when my work changed, and I could no longer do my work in the public view.” “This will reset the clock and bring us back to where we should be”

A small team of law enforcement lobbyists opposed the bill.

A lawyer for the Police Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) testified that his organization did believe there should be disclosure of information in some cases: “If a member of the public dies at the hands of police or in their custody, there ought to be an independent, full, fair and thorough investigation into that conduct. Upon the completion of that investigation, that investigation should be available to the public.” Nevertheless, PORAC opposes the bill.

Lobbyist John Lovell, representing various law enforcement organizations, argued that the release of an officer’s information for conduct that is entirely lawful and entirely within policy is unprecedented and dangerous. He testified that putting an officer’s name “into the public wheel” creates an “honest misperception that the officer did something wrong,” even if the action was within policy.

Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) rejected Lovell’s testimony: “It’s a sophomoric argument and I think we need better. If we’re going to engage in meaningful debate to come up with policies that are relevant and helpful to all of California, then we all need to come to the table with relevant debate and that’s not it.”

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) spoke in favor of the bill, saying that the public is entitled to access the records of any investigation into a police shooting, even if the case is within policy. “[A] police officer in our society is in a position of trust…[W]e just have to recognize that we hold our law enforcement, I think as we should, to a higher standard.”

Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) , a co-author of SB 1421, also spoke in support and noted that police officers, as public employees, have limited personal rights to speak out about their public employment. “I have friends who are in law enforcement… and they would be here today if their job wasn’t in jeopardy telling you about the biases that exists… but we find a way to mute that testimony and mute those discussions.”

The Senate Appropriations Committee, which killed the last effort to open up police records in 2016, will hear the bill next.