To the plaudits of law enforcement unions and the dismay of transparency advocates, a bill that would have made public the investigation and discipline records of police officers with proven findings of misconduct was held in the state senate appropriations committee.
Records related to dishonesty on the job or serious use of force would also have been made public under the bill, SB 1286 would also have given civilian police oversight bodies, such as offices of independent review or police commissions, full access to personnel records of such officers, with confidentiality provisions and personal information redacted.
The appropriations committee dealing with the bill on Friday "didn't vote for it, didn't vote against it, they just left it on suspense," explained Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, a co-sponsor of the bill. "The way I like to characterize it is killing it without any fingerprints."
A number of other states allow public access to such records without difficulties, Ewert said, "yet California continues its policy of secrecy. ... It's a sad day."
George Hofstetter, president of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, approved of the committee's action. "The legislature correctly acknowledged law enforcement officers are entitled to the same privacy protections as all other employees, and current procedures allowing records to be revealed upon adequate showing to a judge are sufficient," he said in a statement.
"There is an amazing amount of power with public safety employees' unions. They play a pretty big role in campaigns," said Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, a co-author of the bill. "More transparency is a better service to our public safety and front line officers. Our public safety agencies hurt themselves by not giving as full disclosure as possible."
Peter Bibring, senior staff attorney at ACLU of Southern California, a sponsor of the bill, said secrecy around peace officer records is one of the most fundamental structural obstacles to police reform in California.
"Obviously this is a serious disappointment. During the course of this, officers made arguments about safety and privacy, but this bill would have left police officers with greater confidentiality than any other public employee in California," Bibring said. "The opposition wasn't really about safety or privacy. It was a fear of transparency. Law enforcement did not want to tell the public how they are handling proven misconduct."
Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, the bill's author, said in a statement that secrecy around confirmed allegations of police misconduct undermines trust in law enforcement and jeopardizes safety. "I am disappointed that the Legislature did not have an opportunity to weigh in on this critical legislation. Without SB 1286, confirmed allegations of police misconduct will continue to be obscured from public view," Leno said.
"You would think that California would be the leader, not one that lagged behind most in transparency in police misconduct, said Ben Meiselas of Geragos & Geragos APC. "The way it was killed in such an unceremonious, lack-of-transparency way was the ultimate irony. The senate endorsing the idea that the public can only have access to these records is through litigation is completely counterintuitive to what it means to be a Californian."
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