Senate votes to end police secrecy

The state Senate took a monumental step this week to loosen the vise on police personnel records, which has long prevented newspapers from investigating police shootings and controversial encounters with the public.

Sponsored by CNPA, SB 1421 is an iteration of legislation that CNPA has run on three other occasions since 2006 when the California Supreme Court ruled that the state’s already stringent protections on police personnel records, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in the 1970s, prevented the disclosure of police records in any forum.

If enacted, the bill, which was voted off the Senate floor with 25 aye votes and 11 noes, would allow a public records requester to obtain documents, including information like facts, names, findings and evidence, related to any police shooting or sustained finding of officer misconduct related to dishonesty or sexual assault. The proposed law would put police officers in line with other public employees, whose personnel records are disclosed unless the employee’s privacy interest in non-disclosure of the records clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure.

If signed into law, SB 1421 would also bring California in line with many other states that release police records. Today, California is an outlier. The Los Angeles Times, which editorialized in support of the bill today, argued that the dearth of information on police use of serious force makes meaningful oversight of police departments across the state exceedingly difficult.

“[I]t is nearly impossible to learn which officers account for disproportionate injuries, deaths and public liability. Nor is it possible to determine whether agencies operate effective internal investigations and unbiased disciplinary systems. That leaves police departments shockingly free of real oversight from the public they serve,” the editorial board wrote.

The bill is now in the Assembly, and will likely be heard by the Public Safety Committee in June before the summer recess. If it succeeds, SB 1421 will again head to the Appropriations Committee and, likely, the suspense file, before a floor vote in the Assembly in August.

The Assembly is generally viewed as the more moderate house, and SB 1421 will face significant scrutiny by members. If the bill does reach the governor’s desk, Gov. Jerry Brown will have the distinct opportunity to undo the ills of a bill he signed over 40 years ago, and turn the lights back on in the realm of California law enforcement.