SACRAMENTO – An amended bill designed to increase the public’s access to records about police discipline cases in California cleared a key hurdle last week as the state Senate’s Public Safety Committee gave the bill a 5-1 vote of confidence.
Sponsors of the bill, including the California Newspaper Publishers Association, say it will increase transparency and accountability in a state where access to such records has been stymied for years. The association’s general counsel, Jim Ewert, said the bill was recently amended in response to concerns raised by law enforcement.
One of those concerns was that Senate Bill 1286, authored by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) initially allowed local agencies to hold public personnel hearings into major complaints against police officers.
“The bill when introduced allowed for local agencies to hold public hearings, and that provision will be stricken,” Ewert told the Northern California Record.
The public’s access to police discipline records has been largely blocked in California since 2006, when the state Supreme Court handed down its decision in Copley v. Superior Court broadly interpreting a 1978 law that protects police personnel files from public disclosure. The idea behind Leno’s bill is to provide the public with more information about disciplinary proceedings in a way that will foster greater public trust between the police and the communities they serve, Ewert said.
“It will provide the public with access about how decision makers are dealing with the basic facts that are presented them,” he said, adding that the information should help to show whether discipline issues are being swept under the rug or whether police organizations are handling them in the public interest.
Leno himself said in a prepared statement, “Our goal is to protect public safety, create safer communities and reduce law enforcement’s use of force.”
Opponents of SB 1286 have argued that disclosing such information about officers may put them at risk of retaliation, but Ewert challenges that line of reasoning.
“Every time there is an opportunity for the public to get information about how officers conduct themselves, for whatever reason they raise opposition to that,” he said. “The courts have rejected this argument. It’s speculative at best.”
Ewert said officers can raise concerns if they know of a specific threat against them or their families, and the courts will protect them by preventing the release of information in such situations.
He characterized the bill as limited in scope, applying to perhaps only 1 percent of all complaints against peace officers. The bill would apply to officers accused of engaging in serious misconduct such as lethal use of force and crimes of dishonesty or racial profiling. In addition, it would apply to records when complaints against officers have been sustained by their departments.
Ewert said he was cautiously optimistic about the eventual passage of the bill, but he still expressed concerns about the road ahead.
“We’re up against a very powerful lobbying group that has sway with legislators,” he said. “And it is an election year.”
The next stop for SB 1286 is the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee.