Following years of growing public outcry and protest over police shootings, Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday signed a pair of bills that will increase transparency around officer killings of civilians by expanding access to personnel and video records.
Their approval bucks decades of law enforcement influence at the Capitol that advocates say has made it difficult to challenge some of the nation’s strictest laws shielding police misconduct from public scrutiny.
Despite heavy opposition once again from law enforcement unions, who argued that the proposals could put their members at risk, lawmakers passed two significant accountability measures this session. Advocates contend the changes will help bolster community trust in policing.
“Unfortunately, over the years, we the people have been stripped of the power to oversee and hold law enforcement accountable for their use — and abuse — of these powers. All too often, we are left in the dark, even as we gain a greater awareness of systemic problems with policing that remain rooted in oppression and racism,” Peter Bibring, director of policing practices for the American Civil Liberties Union of California, said in a statement. His organization was a lead sponsor of the measures.
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“There is no doubt these two bills will significantly transform policing in California and help address the current crisis in policing which has led to the deaths of far too many people – largely in Black and brown communities,” Bibring said.
Senate Bill 1421, by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, opens public access to internal investigations of police shootings and other incidents where an officer killed or seriously injured someone, as well to sustained findings of sexual assault and lying on the job.
When former Sen. Mark Leno made a similar push two years ago, his measure did not even get a floor vote. But SB 1421 was negotiated with the California Police Chiefs Association, providing some law enforcement support, though rank-and-file officer groups remained opposed.
“When incidents such as a police shooting occurs, the public has a right to know that there was a thorough investigation,” Skinner said in a statement. “Without access to such records, communities can’t hold our public safety agencies accountable.”
Assembly Bill 748, by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, requires police departments to release within 45 days audio or video footage of shootings or other incidents involving serious use of force, unless it would interfere with an active investigation.
It’s the first major California law regulating police body cameras. Legislation to address a patchwork of local rules has repeatedly bogged down in recent sessions amid disagreements over whether to require body cameras, under what conditions and when to mandate the release of footage.
“Public access to body camera footage is necessary to boost confidence and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” Ting said in a statement.
Another contentious proposal to limit police shootings was shelved at the end of the session last month. Assembly Bill 931, by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, would have raised the legal standard for officers to justifiably kill a suspect.
Law enforcement groups said the measure, which was introduced in the wake of the March shooting of Stephon Clark outside his grandmother’s south Sacramento home, would put officers’ lives in danger by causing them to second-guess their actions.