Police misconduct – including brutality – has become a very hot topic in recent months, and Senate Bill 1286 addresses it by modifying the extraordinary secrecy that envelops conduct cases.
A bewildering thicket of laws, adopted by politicians beholden to powerful law enforcement groups, shields police misconduct records from public scrutiny – exempting them from the state’s Public Records Act.
SB 1286, carried by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would crack this wall of secrecy, allowing some access to outcomes of cases, but not tear it down. It’s sponsored by civil liberties and journalistic organizations and, not surprisingly, strongly opposed by police unions and other law enforcement groups.
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The bill gained approval of the Senate Public Safety Committee, but on Monday, with dozens of others, it was placed “on suspense” by the Senate Appropriations Committee after a brief hearing.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, because SB 1286 is an example of the Legislature’s peculiar ways.
Thousands of bills make their way through the legislative process each year, and most that survive initial committee hearings are routed through the appropriations committees of both houses because, in theory, they would create governmental expense.
Most of them are placed in “suspense files,” in theory because their fiscal impact should be evaluated after the state budget is approved.
Some do have substantial fiscal impact, so the process is valid for them. But many do not, so why are they placed “on suspense”?
The suspense file process has morphed into a way for the Legislature’s leaders to decide in secret which bills will be allowed to proceed and which will not, for reasons known only to themselves.
At some point later in the session, the committees will meet and in mere minutes declare which bills will be allowed to reach the floors of both houses. Pro forma votes will be entered into the official record, but that’s just window dressing.
The arbitrary nature of the process is aimed not only at winnowing the volume of measures reaching the floors, and their costs, but at protecting legislators from having to cast votes that could be politically difficult.
One could say, in fact, that legislators are protecting themselves in the same way that police secrecy laws protect cops and their departments from having to answer to the public for their actions.
Nor is it the only way that the Legislature makes it more difficult for its activities to receive public scrutiny.
When they take up the budget in June – a budget whose important details will be drafted in secret by the governor and legislative leaders – lawmakers will also vote on a couple of dozen “trailer bills” that supposedly implement the budget but always contain major policy changes that are never aired publicly in advance.
Not only should the secrecy surrounding internal police investigations be breached, but also the secrecy that envelops the budget. A pending ballot measure would do the latter, requiring bills, such as those sneaky trailer bills, to be in print for 72 hours before votes.