Editorials

Bad cops shouldn’t get to operate in secret. Lawmakers, it’s time for transparency

Demonstrators gather on the west steps of the state Capitol during a demonstration on Friday, March 23, 2018 protesting the shooting of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police.
Demonstrators gather on the west steps of the state Capitol during a demonstration on Friday, March 23, 2018 protesting the shooting of Stephon Clark by Sacramento police. rbenton@sacbee.com

Law enforcement officers are public employees. Our tax dollars pay their salaries.

They are a special category of public employees, to be sure, tasked with a job that sometimes puts them in danger. But they are also the only public employees with permission to kill, if that’s what it takes to to preserve safety. So in theory, they should get special scrutiny.

Senate Bill 1421, by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, is scheduled to be heard Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee. The committee should think twice before shelving it, as it has similar bills in the past.

Yet because of a 40-year-long build-up of bad law, unanticipated court rulings and political deference to police unions, we, the taxpayers, know next to nothing about most of the 162 cases last year in which California law enforcement officers on our payroll killed people in our name.

This week, state lawmakers will have a chance to bring a modicum of sanity to this longstanding issue, which came to attention most recently around the Stephon Clark shooting. The Sacramento case has raised basic questions: Who were the officers? What were their records? Did they have a history of abusing civilians? Do they pose a danger to residents?

In most states, the disciplinary files with that sort of information are, by law, available in some form to the public. But California keeps them completely confidential, shrouded in secrecy.

Never mind that the state open records law is so popular that, a decade and a half ago, 83 percent of voters backed enshrining it in the state Constitution. If an officer has been accused repeatedly of abuse, or disciplined for lying, or denied a promotion because of unprofessional behavior, that information can’t be disclosed. The public can’t know unless a judge orders it as part of a criminal case or lawsuit. In some cases, in fact, it’s even blocked from the view of other law enforcement agencies.

It’s a situation law enforcement lobbyists have exploited to an extreme, even as it has left municipalities vulnerable to lawsuits and eroded trust in the criminal justice system. The pendulum has swung too far, and it’s time for a change.

Senate Bill 1421, by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, is scheduled to be heard Tuesday before the Senate Appropriations Committee. The committee should think twice before shelving it, as it has similar bills in the past.

Backed by the American Civil Liberties Unions and the California Newspaper Publishers Association, among others, SB 1421 is hardly extreme; though law enforcement lobbyists have wailed and gnashed, it would lift the veil only for the most egregious misconduct and most grave outcomes.

Only if an officer shoots, kills, seriously injures or sexually assaults a member of the public, or is proven to have planted evidence, committed perjury or otherwise been dishonest in an investigation would the state be able to release personnel records. And even then, information could be withheld or redacted to protect the safety of officers and witnesses, or avoid invasion of privacy.

Law enforcement lobbyists insist that even this sliver of sunlight is unfair and will compromise their work. Nonsense. Disciplinary records are public in other states, yet their officers manage.

SB 1421 alone isn’t enough, but at this dysfunctional point, almost anything would be progress. As the Clark shooting showed, the public has lost not only trust, but patience. Other, more aggressive measures are working their way through the Legislature; if they don’t pass either, voters might turn to the blunt instrument of the initiative process for recourse.

This bill should advance, as should a rethinking of this state’s use-of-force standards. No other class of public employees is so shielded from oversight – not doctors in county hospitals, not deans at the University of California, not school teachers, not tax collectors, not legislative staffs.

Californians deserve to know who’s patrolling their streets, and to weed out the bad actors. And law enforcement unions need to remember who’s boss.

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