Police won’t obey transparency law. Why trust them on deadly force reform?

Gov. Gavin Newsom is slated to meet with law enforcement groups this week. In recognition of National Sunshine Week – when we honor the importance of open and transparent government – perhaps the governor can ask them why they’re working so hard to undermine Senate Bill 1421.

SB 1421 requires law enforcement agencies to release the disciplinary records of officers involved in shootings and other serious misconduct. The bill’s author, state Senator Nancy Skinner, wrote the bill to be retroactive, applying to past as well as future records.

Law enforcement groups lobbied unsuccessfully against the bill. Now that it’s the law, many of them have refused to comply. In fact, some police agencies destroyed old records before the new law took effect.

Other police departments have refused to turn over records from past years, claiming the law only applies to records created after the law went into effect in January. The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times have filed a lawsuit against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones for his refusal to comply with the law.

Police unions have also sued to block the release of records, but a successive string of judges has dismissed their arguments. According to the Fresno Bee: “One of the unions that sued was a police officers association in Los Angeles. A Superior Court judge there, Mitchell L. Beckloff, addressed the Jan. 1 date issue in ruling against the union: ‘The unambiguous language (in the bill) demonstrates the operation of SB 1421 has nothing to do with the date on which a personnel record was created — it applies to all records.’ On Wednesday the state Supreme Court upheld Beckloff’s ruling and closed the Los Angeles case.”

Some agencies – like the California Highway Patrol – have complied with the bill. We commend their obedience to the law. It’s especially important because we trust them to enforce laws for the rest of us.

Yet too many law enforcement officials now stand in open defiance of SB 1421. This is distressing because some police misconduct reports obtained by journalists with the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley reveal shocking crimes by those we trust to serve and protect.

“Their crimes include shoplifting, embezzlement and murder. Some cops molested kids and downloaded child pornography. Others beat their wives, girlfriends or children; trafficked drugs; stole money from their departments; and, in one case, robbed a bank,” according the San Jose Mercury News.

In San Diego, records released by the sheriff’s department revealed that “a lieutenant stole ‘well over’ $100,000 from her church. A deputy was accused of biting his wife and lying about it. Another deputy went to Starbucks instead of responding to a call for service,” according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

What other horrors will be revealed? We don’t know, but police unions sure are working hard to make sure we never find out. Their fight against transparency and accountability seriously undermines their credibility at a critical time.

These same groups now oppose Assembly Bill 392, which would establish new rules for when police officers can use deadly force. The current law gives police the overly broad authority to kill. AB 392 would limit the circumstances in which police could use deadly force.

Law enforcement derailed a similar bill last year. This year, they’ve proposed a bill of their own, Senate Bill 230. It would create new training programs for officers, but put no limits on when they can use deadly force. It’s a decoy bill designed to thwart real reform.

Yet the same police groups refusing to comply with the new transparency law now want us to trust them to draft reforms they oppose. We don’t think so.

Gov. Newsom has pledged to work on deadly force reform, but he hasn’t said whether he favors AB 392 or law enforcement’s sham bill. The issue presents a challenge to our new governor, who campaigned on a motto of “courage for a change.”

Changing deadly force policy will certainly test his courage. And law enforcement’s defiance of SB 1421 speaks volumes about their trustworthiness as partners in reform.