SACRAMENTO – An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union said a California Senate bill that recently died in committee would have provided the public access to information it deserves about possible police misconduct.
Senate Bill 1286, sponsored by state Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), would have made available to the public internal reports in police departments' findings of sexual assault or racial profiling committed by their officers. The public also would have received access to investigations of shootings and other deadly force incidents involving police.
"California is one of only three states that singles out peace officers for special protection for levels of secrecy than other public employees and one of about 23 states for which information about peace officer disciplinary records, being cases of proven misconduct, are completely secret," Peter Bibring, director of police practices for the ACLU of California, told the Northern California Record.
Leno had said opening the police disciplinary process would improve public trust that has decreased in law enforcement due to police-involved shootings and serious use-of-force incidents in recent years.
Law enforcement organizations opposed the bill, which with did not advance out of the Senate Appropriations Committee. They said the bill would violate officers' privacy, and that the availability of prosecution and civilian review boards provide sufficient checks on police misconduct.
Bibring said police privacy should not be an issue in police-involved shootings or use of deadly force.
"In terms of the dynamic of the bill, this was a very moderate measure," he said. "This bill would have been pretty narrow. It would have opened public access in just a few of the most crucial circumstances, police shootings and other serious uses of force."
He said current law prohibits police departments from releasing such information even if they want to provide it.
"The public wants to know what happened," he said. "This is a basic part of democracy. For our people to hold government accountable, they have to have access to see what their government is doing."
Laws in some other states give the public access to complaints against police that are not even proven, he said. He estimated that "another dozen states" make disciplinary information public if some misconduct is proven.
The public has a right to know if the standards police departments apply to their officers' conduct meet the standards of the general public, he said.
Of criticism by some law enforcement officers that the bill was written without the input of law enforcement and would not have improved police departments' relationships with the public, he said. The bill was not "jointly crafted" by law enforcement, but the legislative process provided ample opportunity for law enforcement's input.
"The idea that it would have done nothing to improve relationships with the community, that's just ridiculous," he said.
No other similar bills are being discussed in the California Senate or House, he said.
"This goes back to the point ... in American democracy we don't trust decisions that are made behind closed doors," he said. "There's research to show this."