This editorial is from the San Jose Mercury News:
It’s time to end the secrecy surrounding police behavior in California.
At a time when the nation is clamoring for more transparency about officer-involved shootings and misconduct, this state has some of nation’s most secretive laws to shield cops from public accountability.
That’s why the Legislature should pass, and Gov. Jerry Brown should sign, two bills that would help lift the veil on police conduct while at the same time protecting the privacy interests of officers and integrity of ongoing investigations.
Currently, police departments fire officers. We’re never told why, or even who. State law, created under pressure of a strong public safety lobby, prohibits releasing investigation records that pertain to, for example, officer-involved shootings, sexual assaults by cops or their lying under oath.
The rules for body-camera recordings are slightly different. But the bottom line is that when police shoot citizens on the streets, the video footage is often shielded from public view — unless, as in the Jan. 3 shooting by a BART police officer, it serves the interest of the department to release it.
The constant secrecy undermines confidence in police, who carry deadly weapons and are entrusted with tremendous power. That responsibility should be accompanied by strict public accountability.
“Access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” That’s what the California’s Public Records Act says.
And the California Supreme Court has declared that “the public’s legitimate interest in the identity and activities of peace officers is even greater than its interest in those of the average public servant.”
Yet, state law carves out strict secrecy protections for cops. No other public employees enjoy such shielding of their misbehavior.
It’s time for sunshine.
The first bill, Senate Bill 1421, introduced by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, directly addresses the ridiculous confidentiality surrounding police personnel records.
The bill would require disclosure of records involving an officer’s use of a firearm or Taser, sexual assault on a member of the public or dishonesty when reporting a crime or misconduct of another officer.
There are provisions for delaying release of the records to protect ongoing investigations. But, eventually, the records would have to be released in most cases.
The second bill, Assembly Bill 748, introduced by Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, pertains to video recordings from officer body cameras, which have been widely deployed by police departments across the state.
It’s absurd that California currently has no statewide standard for release of body-camera recordings, even when they pertain to police use of force.
The bill would require release of video or audio recordings that depict officers using force, including discharging their firearms, breaking the law or violating department policy.
The police departments could delay release for up to 45 days from the date of the incident if disclosure would impede an investigation. And it could further extend the delay in 15-day increments if essential.
That’s more lenient than we would like, but it’s an acceptable balance of competing interests. And it’s certainly far better than the strict secrecy that departments frequently employ.