Sacramento’s police chief said Monday that California needs to rethink strict laws that keep officer disciplinary records private if law enforcement wants to rebuild trust with communities of color after officer-involved shootings.
“It does seem like part of the problem with transparency is I’m literally not able to speak about any of it,” said Sacramento Police Chief Dan Hahn. “Literally, like it’s against the law for me to speak about it.”
The remarks came during a panel discussion on policing and transparency hosted by Huffington Post and The Sacramento Bee, which drew more than 75 people to the main library for the live-streamed event.
Discussing the March officer-involved shooting of Stephon Clark, a young African American man killed after police mistook his cell phone for a gun, Hahn called out rules in California’s Peace Officer’s Bill of Rights, enacted in 1976, that make it nearly impossible for the public to access officers’ disciplinary records — even when they have faced internal sanctions or been fired.
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“I’ve said long before any of these incidents happened that over time you always have to evolve, and I think we do have to evolve in terms of what we release about officers,” Hahn said. “Somewhere there should be some sort of happy medium, or some way that we can get more information out about what takes place in some of these investigations. . . . otherwise I can hold somebody completely accountable and it’s going to seem as if we didn’t.”
State legislators took aim at the privacy protections during the last legislative session, passing two transparency measures that will allow greater public access to information about officers. When they go into effect next year, the laws will mandate the release of some body camera video within 45 days of an officer-involved shooting or other critical incident unless it interferes with an investigation, and allow some access to personnel records after critical incidents including deadly use-of-force, and after confirmed cases of lying on duty or sexual assault.
Hahn pointed out that Sacramento has implemented significant police reforms in recent years, beginning after the 2016 fatal shooting of Joseph Mann, a mentally ill black man armed with a knife. That incident led to all patrol officers wearing body-worn cameras and release of video footage in critical incidents within 30 days.
Despite those changes, the more recent shootings of Clark and African American teenager Darell Richards — and glitches that have included microphones and cameras being turned off during critical incidents — have led some community members to call for further reforms. There is also frustration that six months after the Clark shooting, investigations by police, the Sacramento County District Attorney and the California Attorney General remain ongoing, with no clear answers about when they will conclude.
“I believe the community has been crystal clear about the pain that we’re experiencing, what it is we want, particularly around (the) Stephon Clark case, and why we want it,” said community activist Anita Ross, another panelist at the event. “I believe that we have been loud and clear and I don’t feel like there’s an acknowledgment that we have an issue, that young black boys and black men are being killed by use of excessive force at the law enforcement level and the city official level and beyond.”
Basim Elkarra, a community activist and member of the city’s police commission, said he believes data must be evaluated to find trends that could indicate systemic problems.
“It’s a two-way street,” Elkarra said. “It is to build confidence with the public that there’s transparency, but also internally for the department to see ... patterns, and if there is a negative pattern to make sure that we’re addressing it.”
Francine Tournour, chief of the Sacramento Office of Public Safety Accountability, said mental illness was a factor in many fatal shootings. She conducted an analysis that found 75 percent of the people shot by police in Sacramento over the past few years weren’t armed with guns, and the majority of them were in mental health crises when they fatally encountered police, she said.
“I know there is a lot of focus on the police department, but if you talk about where you can really make a lot of the changes that are necessary it has to come with health care for mental health,” she said. “Doing this for as long as I’ve been doing it, that is quite often the common denominator.”
Since the death of Mann, the Sacramento Police Department has reformed its approach to mental health crises by instituting mandatory crisis intervention trainings and using less lethal weapons such as bean bag shotguns, Hahn said. But he also voiced frustration about the lack of mental health services that often leaves police as the only option during a crisis.
“The reason why the police department has to be involved in it all the time, at least the way we do business now, is because when somebody is in mental health crisis on the street, people only call one number and that’s 911,” he said.