California Forum

Compliance with SB 1421 is crucial to police accountability

At 3 a.m. on Feb. 20, 2017, Kisha Michael and Marquintan Sandlin were sitting — unconscious — in an idle Chevy Malibu in Inglewood. Police rolled up and, a few moments later, shot the couple 20 times.

The Inglewood Police Department claimed the shooting occurred after an “unknown exchange,” but refused to provide more details. Police have never explained why five officers fired so many bullets into two unconscious people. Despite persistent inquiry by family members, the killings of Kisha and Marquintan remain shrouded in secrecy. The district attorney’s investigation has dragged on into its second year.

We know there was wrongdoing — and the city knows it, too. All five officers were fired. Inglewood knew these killings were a criminal miscarriage of justice, but a culture of absolute reverence toward law enforcement is once again standing in the way of actual justice.

Inglewood recently destroyed hundreds of records of police investigations so they would not be made public under Senate Bill 1421, the new state law designed to increase transparency by making police misconduct records subject to public scrutiny. Ideally, the law would give families like those of Kisha and Marquintan the ability to know what happened to their loved ones.

Yet police are finding new ways to hide the truth. Long Beach police destroyed 12 years’ worth of internal affairs records recently — again, just before the new law made them publicly accessible. In San Bernardino County, the police union sued to stop the bill from going into effect. The police union in Orange County is doing the same.

Opinion

We know why police want these records hidden. In Burlingame, we learned of an officer who was fired for asking a woman to trade sex for leniency. In Hayward, police are telling community members that releasing records of 13 incidents of police misconduct and shootings will take 1,268 hours of staff time — an effort to make the case against public release of the information.

These incidents are just the latest efforts to flout justice in California, which is already the most secretive police state in the country. We have a long history of such tactics, dating back to a massive purge of police documents in the 1970s in which Los Angeles police destroyed more than four tons of personnel records rather than allow the information to be used in court. The brazen move ushered in efforts to improve transparency in the law enforcement realm.

Impeding the success of SB 1421 is their latest attempt. For months, grieving families from Humboldt County to Orange County got on buses and made their way to Sacramento to support its passage. They helped convince legislators of the need to reveal the truth about shootings, sexual assaults, misuses of force and other abuses by police throughout the state.

The information 1421 will provide communities is critical for two reasons: Families and loved ones have a right to know what happened to their relatives and friends so they can do their best to move forward from the loss.

Cat Brooks
Cat Brooks, Executive Director of the Justice Teams Network. Curtis Jermany -MooD-ology

Such information can save lives. It can potentially stop officers who have killed before from doing it again.

Theresa Smith lost her son, Caesar, to a police shooting in Anaheim in 2009 and has been advocating since for the firing of the five officers involved. In filing a request for police records on his killing, she said: “This might seem like just filling out a form but, for me, it’s what keeps me going. I won’t rest until the people responsible for Caesar’s death are held accountable.”

Of the five officers who shot her son, two of them went on to kill two more men. Both officers remain on duty.

Law enforcement’s fight against transparency in cases like these is a damning indictment. The destruction of investigative records is an authoritarian tactic. Yet we are seeing it employed by the very agencies charged with enforcing the law.

This impunity must end. For decades, police unions have held an unflinching grip on lawmakers, enabling them to both kill and escape accountability.

The people fought for, and won, a first step toward changing that narrative with SB 1421. Winning its passage was hard; enforcing it will be harder. But we are ready, we are willing, and we cannot rest until we win.

Cat Brooks is the Executive Director of the Justice Teams Network, a network of grassroots activists providing rapid response and healing justice in response to all forms of State violence across the State of California. Cat is the co founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, and hosts the UpFront radio show on KPFA in the Bay Area.
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