Records detailing police misconduct and serious use of force, long kept confidential, could become public in California if legislation announced Friday is passed into law.
State Sen. Mark Leno, seeking to tighten accountability amid a national conversation over police shootings and a push for law enforcement reform in San Francisco, introduced a bill that would roll back a 1978 law and subsequent Supreme Court rulings that prompted cities to close police disciplinary cases to the media and the public.
“We’ve reached a critical point in the public’s perception of how law enforcement is doing its critically important work,” Leno said at a news conference in San Francisco, where he was joined not only by police watchdogs and progressive city supervisors but District Attorney George Gascón, a former city police chief.
“Officer-involved shootings around the country revealed on video have raised serious concerns,” Leno said. “Now more than ever the public’s trust in its law enforcement agencies is needed.”
It’s the second time Leno has pushed to restore such access, but stopping the bill will be a top priority for police unions, who argue that accountability can be achieved without violating officers’ privacy.
Harry Stern, an attorney who represents officers around the Bay Area, slammed the proposal, linking it to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ recent approval of a day of remembrance for Mario Woods, the stabbing suspect whose video-recorded killing by police sparked protests and a federal review of the city force.
“No one is against accountability,” Stern said. “But when politicos press an agenda that includes declaring a day in honor of a violent felon, one must consider their motives with a jaundiced eye. … In today’s criminal-friendly, antipolice climate, we need fewer baseless public floggings of cops, not more.”
Public allowed access
Under the Increasing Law Enforcement Transparency bill, the public would be allowed access to records of serious instances of use of force — those that cause death or serious bodily injury — and records of sustained charges of misconduct, including sexual assault, racial profiling, job dishonesty, violation of rights and illegal search or seizure. That means officials have completed an investigation and found the officer in violation.
Those who file complaints would be able to obtain more information on the investigation, the findings and any discipline imposed, rather than a current cursory response that informs the person if charges were “sustained” or “unsustained.”
In cities, including San Francisco, the bill would also allow local officials to decide whether to restore public hearings and public appeals on allegations of misconduct.
Leno, D-San Francisco, said California should not abide some of the country’s least transparent laws governing law enforcement records. The bill comes at a time of heightened police scrutiny nationwide and is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Conference of California Bar Associations.
Peter Bibring, who as the director of police practices for the ACLU of California helped draft the legislation, said it sought to strengthen the relationship between California communities and the police.
Police ‘have to earn’ trust
“Police departments have been concerned about the lack of trust between communities and police,” Bibring said. “But police can’t just ask for trust. They have to earn it, and in order to earn it, they have to be transparent about what they do.”
San Francisco Police Officers Association officials will be among those fighting the legislation. Nathan Ballard, an adviser for the union, said that while officers support efforts to bring transparency — including having officers wear body cameras — the union will oppose legislation seeking “to undo the California Supreme Court’s ruling that protects police officers’ privacy interests.”
“Due process is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution,” Ballard said. “It’s undermined when the public is allowed a ringside seat to an employer’s disciplinary process.”
San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr and Sheriff Vicki Hennessy did not immediately respond to calls for comment, but Leno said he alerted them of his proposal and will be meeting with the police union.
Several San Francisco officials came out in support Friday — including Police Commission Vice President L. Julius Turman and Supervisors London Breed, Malia Cohen and Aaron Peskin — with many invoking the Dec. 2 police shooting of Woods, which remains under investigation.
Tense relationship with police
Gascón, whose relationship with the police force has grown increasingly tense, said his experience as police chief in San Francisco as well as in Mesa, Ariz., where state law granted public access to disciplinary records, proved to him that such laws “do not harm the well-being of police officers.”
“As a career law enforcement officer who spent 30 years in policing, I can tell you that good police officers do not fear transparency,” Gascón said. “Good police officers welcome transparency because it allows them to work effectively with the communities that they serve.”
But Alison Berry Wilkinson, an attorney who represented the Berkeley Police Officers Association when the union fought to close police-misconduct proceedings, said a reversal could have damaging side effects, including on public safety.
“There are a number of documented efforts where highly proactive, very effective officers are targeted (with misconduct complaints) by the bad guys to discourage them from moving forward with enforcing the law,” she said.
Access restricted since ’70s
California law regarding law enforcement records has been restrictive since the 1970s, when a state Supreme Court decision led to a police union-led push for confidentiality measures. However, for years, some city police forces, including in San Francisco and Los Angeles, allowed for some disciplinary records and hearings to be open to the public.
In 2003, the San Diego Union-Tribune filed a lawsuit when reporters were denied access to an appeals hearing for a county sheriff’s deputy who had been fired. A subsequent state Supreme Court decision, Copley vs. Superior Court, held that the public had no right to obtain records of administrative appeals in police disciplinary cases — and ended all local government practices that opened disciplinary hearings.
Time might be right
An effort to undo the Copley decision by then-Assemblyman Leno and then-Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, stalled in an Assembly hearing in 2007 after heavy lobbying from the law enforcement community.
Leno said he is optimistic about the outcome this time, not only because the bill provides safeguards if public access to certain records could jeopardize an officer’s life, but because the timing is right.
“One thing I have learned is that ideas have their own time,” he said. “Despite my own force of will, some things just don’t happen until that idea seems to have come of age. With all that has gone on around the country, here in San Francisco, the polling that we’ve looked at it, I think this is an idea whose time has come.”
Vivian Ho is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @VivianHo
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