Opinion

Time for California’s ‘top cop’ to follow the law on police records transparency

Jordan Cunningham working to hold police accountable for sexual misconduct

California Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham has proposed a bill that, along with an amendment to the SB 1421 police transparency law, would go a long way to better holding rogue law enforcement officers accountable for sexual misconduct.
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California Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham has proposed a bill that, along with an amendment to the SB 1421 police transparency law, would go a long way to better holding rogue law enforcement officers accountable for sexual misconduct.

A Court of Appeal in Contra Costa county recently published a ruling upholding California’s new transparency law for police records against a challenge brought by police unions. The judges rejected the unions’ argument as “without merit.”

They ruled that Senate Bill 1421 covers all investigative records about officer involved shootings and other major deadly use-of-force incidents, as well as serious confirmed misconduct within a police department’s possession. Not, as police unions had argued, just the ones created after January 1, when the historic law took effect.

A legal decision like this goes into effect immediately and establishes legal precedent for lower courts throughout California. Unless another appellate court issues a contrary ruling, this should put to rest the barrage of identical challenges police unions had mounted across the state. Police unions throughout California have either lost or moved to drop their challenges to the law.

Yet despite the landmark decision, the state’s chief law enforcement officer, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, is refusing to release records as mandated by SB 1421. Becerra, who himself is being sued for refusing to comply with records requests, has claimed that the appellate court decision is not binding on other courts. His inaction has drawn well-deserved rebukes, including from state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who authored SB 1421.

This is significant because many police agencies were using Becerra’s position as an excuse to do likewise. As California’s attorney general, Becerra must act as a model for the state by disclosing his own agency’s records. His refusal to do so is especially painful to families impacted by police violence.

Opinion

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed hundreds of public records requests across the state under the new police transparency law, including on behalf of 13 families whose loved ones were killed by the police. Many are from communities of color who have, all too often, experienced a one-sided law enforcement investigation that seems to scrutinize everything except the actions of the police.

California has historically had a complete shroud of secrecy over disciplinary records, even for deadly shootings or when an officer’s own department concluded that he had committed sexual assault or planted evidence.

SB 1421 ensures that families whose loved ones were killed by police can get answers about how those killings were investigated – and whether officers who commit misconduct continue to patrol our communities. These are important questions that all Californians deserve to have answered.

Becerra said in some legal filings that the police unions’ argument was wrong. Despite this, he adopted a “wait and see” approach, wanting further clarity from the courts. That clarity arrived March 29. Yet the attorney general’s department is one of the few agencies still arguing against releasing the records based on officer privacy.

We need law enforcement to abide by and enforce the law – not split hairs. Police expect citizens to follow our laws, after all.

Before I joined the ACLU, I worked as a public defender for over a decade. I once filed a legal challenge for a client who was denied a hearing to contest whether an officer lied in authoring a search warrant. My client was in custody and his conviction hinged on the legality of the search. The attorney general was a stickler for following the law to the letter, arguing that we had missed the filing deadline by a matter of days. Yet where is his concern now?

Becerra should have been a leader on this issue, but it’s at least time for him to fall in line and stop denying families answers. His continued failure to enforce SB 1421 sends a message that he is more concerned about protecting rogue police officers than he is about fulfilling his sworn duty to uphold the law.

Kathleen Guneratne is a senior attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Northern California
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