New Calif. laws open police officer records to public

Senate Bill 1421 opens the once-private personnel files of officers using deadly force, involved in sustained acts of on-duty sexual assault or engaging in dishonesty

By Tony Saavedra
The Orange County Register

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Shattering 40 years of secrecy, police disciplinary records and body camera footage will be available for public scrutiny under two laws signed this week by Gov. Jerry Brown.

Senate Bill 1421, by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, opens the once-private personnel files of officers using deadly force, involved in sustained acts of on-duty sexual assault or engaging in dishonesty.

Since 1976, California law enforcement officers have been protected by statutes and court rulings — the strictest in the nation — that made it illegal to release virtually any police personnel records. Brown, during his first term as governor, signed the bill that was the backbone of law enforcement confidentiality, the Peace Officers Bill of Rights.

On Sunday, Brown’s office announced that he had signed Skinner’s bill, denting the shield that had protected officers from public disclosure for decades.

“That prohibition masked the misbehavior of a lot of law enforcement officers who didn’t hew an ethical line,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

The new law opens the door to transparency and promotes trust in law enforcement, Ewert said, adding that the fight for reform has been a long one.

“We’ve been banging our heads against the wall for years,” he said.

Other proposals have died under the withering opposition of law enforcement unions and police agencies throughout California. This law, which also applies to police conduct that occurred before its passage, succeeded partly because it was more narrow than the others.

Telephone numbers, home addresses, the names of family members and other personal information will remain exempt from disclosure. Skinner added that it was the right time for more transparency, “to create that sunshine.”

“There is increased public awareness and concern about whether law enforcement agencies are adequately investigating misconduct,” Skinner said. “I think agencies will be more thorough and … able to weed out bad actors.”

Tom Dominguez, president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, said the union supports the idea of holding agencies accountable for bad cops. But Dominguez said he was concerned that the “dishonesty” category was too wide and subject to interpretation.

An allegation of “dishonesty” could be sustained but later overturned on appeal, Dominguez said. Yet the records may have already been released.

“It’s purely subjective and that is a problem, especially when you have overzealous police chiefs and sheriffs,” Dominguez said. The records bill takes effect in January.

The other bill, Assembly Bill 748 by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, would allow the release of body camera footage and audio recordings. Dominguez said the union also supports the use of body-worn cameras and the public disclosure of audio and video recordings, which must be done within 45 days unless it would hamper an investigation.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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