The wall of secrecy around police officer data was years in the making, starting with the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, signed into law in 1978. That law virtually obliterated the ability of the public to find out anything about a police officer – civilian complaints, disciplinary actions and even promotions.
Since then, powerful police unions and law enforcement advocates have continued to push successfully to expand the veil of secrecy while quashing any attempt to peek through.
It’s time to push back.
As The Bee’s Jim Miller reported in a story on Monday, California is one of the most secretive states in the nation when it comes to law enforcement records. Not just personal data – the public isn’t allowed to find out whether the officers it employs to enforce the rules are breaking them.
An officer’s street address and family details should not be easily accessible to the world. We don’t want to live in a country where officers working on gang or drug crime can easily be targeted by the bad guys.
However, that legitimate concern has provided cover for the ridiculous expansion of privacy so that even on-the-job misconduct and crimes committed aren’t made public. That’s an unacceptable amount of privacy for a public employee, especially when that person is allowed to carry a firearm and has the authority to use it.
This is Sunshine Week, the time of year where the media focus on egregious examples of government secrecy. This is one of them. But good luck reversing it; state or local officials don’t have the stomach for political battles with law enforcement.
“The only thing that has a chance of changing this sort of standoff would be a citizen’s ballot amendment, and that’s not easy to do with law enforcement resistance,” said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, an organization that advocates for freedom of information, among other benefits to the public.
A ballot measure is tricky, though, and would require the support of a foundation or group with money to gather signatures. Even then it would face an uphill campaign battle.
What could be more effective, Francke suggests, is taking smaller steps – an incremental pushback. The first step: Replacing one word in Government Code Section 832.7. Currently, the law says that police departments or law enforcement agencies “may disseminate data regarding the number, type, or disposition of complaints (sustained, not sustained, exonerated, or unfounded) made against its officers if that information is in a form which does not identify the individuals involved.”
Change that “may” to a “must” and the result would be the beginning of a collection of data that, while in no way endangering officers, would start to build a public view of brewing problems – another Christopher Dorner or a King City-scope corruption case, say.
Even if the Legislature is unwilling to approve such a minor change, cities could act on their own now by compelling their police departments to “voluntarily” report this data.
With great power comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes great accountability. Or, at least, it should.