Becerra’s decision to keep misconduct records secret betrays public trust and the law

Xavier Becerra Spanish language response to Trump State of the Union address

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra delivered a Spanish language response to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address on February 5, 2019. Becerra gave the speech from C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento.
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California Attorney General Xavier Becerra delivered a Spanish language response to President Donald Trump's State of the Union address on February 5, 2019. Becerra gave the speech from C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra is good at playing the hero when it’s easy.

He’s sued the Trump Administration over 40 times, burnishing his status as a leader of California’s resistance. On Tuesday, he delivered the official Spanish language response to President Trump’s State of the Union address. All of this is red meat for California’s Democratic base, which loathes Trump and cheers grandstanding – substantive or otherwise – by those who oppose him.

While many of the attorney general’s lawsuits against the Trump administration are important and necessary, they carry no political risk. It’s easy to take a stand when you know everyone will applaud. It’s harder when doing the right thing means paying a political price.

So while it’s understandable that Becerra would hesitate to challenge the law enforcement organizations whose political support he cherishes, it’s also disappointing to see the attorney general bend over backward for them to betray the public trust. That’s what Becerra is doing by defying a new law, Senate Bill 1421.

SB 1421 requires law enforcement agencies to release the disciplinary records of officers involved in shootings, crimes or other kinds of misconduct. The bill’s author, State Senator Nancy Skinner, wrote the bill to be retroactive, meaning it would apply to past as well as future records.

Many law enforcement agencies, including the California Highway Patrol, are complying with the law and releasing records from past years, said Skinner. Unfortunately, as police accountability activist Cat Brooks pointed out in a recent op-ed for The Bee, some police departments took the outrageous step of destroying any relevant records before the law took effect on Jan. 1.

The Inglewood Police Department destroyed years’ worth of records, as did police in Long Beach. Meanwhile, police unions in San Bernardino and Orange County have sued to stop the bill from going into effect.

Others, like Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, are denying requests for past records, saying that SB 1421 does not apply retroactively. In response, both The Bee and the Los Angeles Times sued the sheriff. And where is the attorney general of California on this matter? Standing with Sheriff Jones, apparently.

According to a story by KQED’s The California Report, Becerra’s office has rejected a request to release relevant records pertaining to misconduct by California Department of Justice officers, saying “We will not disclose any records that pre-date January 1, 2019 at this time.”

The denial came in response to freelance reporter Darwin BondGraham’s “public records query for copies of misconduct complaints made against sworn law enforcement members of the California Department of Justice since 2014 and files involving sustained cases of misconduct, among other material,” according to KQED.

Skinner, SB 1421’s author, expressed surprise at Becerra’s decision.

“I find the AG’s interpretation puzzling considering that we have law enforcement agencies up and down the state, including our California Highway Patrol, releasing records,” she told KQED.

Attorney general can be a tricky position for Democratic politicians. The challenge: How to appeal to a strongly progressive political base while also staying on the good side of powerful law enforcement organizations and unions.

As former Attorney General Kamala Harris is learning, it’s not always easy to balance the two. She’s drawn criticism from some Democrats for her past decisions to stay silent on criminal justice reform measures.

We applaud Becerra for the work he’s done to increase transparency and shine a light on police misconduct. Just last week, we praised his handling of an independent investigation into the Sacramento Police Department’s use-of-force policies that Chief Daniel Hahn requested after the shooting death of Stephon Clark. In 2017, Becerra became the first attorney general in California history to publicly release a report on use-of-force by every police department in the state.

But the attorney general’s decision to defy the intent of SB 1421 is pernicious. When the chief law enforcement officer in the state refuses to comply with the clear intent of a law, he sets an awful example for others to follow. At a time when police departments and communities across the state are reckoning with the impact of deadly police misconduct, he’s planting his flag on the wrong side of history. This problem can’t be solved by law enforcement officials who destroy records, or keep them hidden, to evade truth and accountability.

We asked the attorney general if, SB 1421 aside, he thought the public interest would be best served if law enforcement agencies released their past records. The response: silence.

Years from now, in some other race for some other office, Becerra may wish to cast himself in the “progressive prosecutor” mold. He may seek to his portray his position on SB 1421 as a regrettable oversight in a big office or, maybe, as a staff error.

For the record, let’s remember what it looks like today: A calculated betrayal of both the public interest and the law by the person we elected to protect and uphold them.

Let him know what you think: Xavier.Becerra@doj.ca.gov