Months away from ending his governorship, Jerry Brown still doesn’t talk much about his legacy. But it’s clear that he cares about it, particularly when it comes to criminal justice reform in California.
In recent years, he has signed a number of bills to roll back sentencing enhancements that can add years of prison time for people with criminal histories. And four decades after signing strict, mandatory sentencing standards into law during his first term as governor, it was Brown out there stumping for Proposition 57, persuading voters to make it easier for nonviolent offenders to earn parole and to dismantle yet another piece of the tough-on-crime system of mass incarceration and over-policing that he helped build.
“You create a problem you figure out how to solve it,” he said in 2016. “If politicians would do that we’d be in a lot better place.”
We agree. That’s why the governor should again take his own advice and solve another problem by signing Senate Bill 1421.
The legislation, which passed the Assembly last week and is authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would force law enforcement agencies to release the details of use-of-force investigations, as well as personnel records of cops who commit crimes while on duty.
Currently, all of this information — in addition to disciplinary records, annual appraisals and details on promotions — is confidential under the legislative straitjacket known as the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights. Only a judge can release such information as part of a criminal case or lawsuit. And not even prosecutors have direct access to it.
It was Brown, in the final months of his first term in the 1970s, who created the foundation for this excessive secrecy and the state’s powerful law enforcement lobby has expanded and protected it ever since.
At the time, the goal was to stop defense attorneys from going on fishing expeditions for evidence in an officer’s personnel file to prove a client’s claim of self defense.
But this isn’t this 1970s. This is the era of smart phones and social media, and of officers being caught on video shooting unarmed people of color. With district attorneys who are either unable or reluctant to file charges in these situations, the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights has morphed into a shield for bad cops to avoid both public scrutiny and consequences for their actions.
For example, we still don’t know much about the Sacramento police officers who fatally shot Stephon Clark in his grandparents’ backyard in March. Nor do we know much about the Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies involved in the deadly shooting of Mikel McIntyre in Rancho Cordova last May.
And an investigation by The Los Angeles Times found that misconduct by cops who testify in court is often kept hidden under the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights. This allows bad officers to move around the state, from from department to department, without the public being the wiser.
This surely isn’t what Brown intended. He should set his legacy straight by righting this clear wrong, and sign SB 1421.