PD Editorial: Law enforcement transparency can rebuild trust
California’s law enforcement lobby had a tough go of it at the end of the recently concluded legislative session, and that’s good news for Californians who believe police officers should be accountable to the people. If Gov. Jerry Brown signs AB 748 and SB 1421, law enforcement agencies will find it harder to conceal important information from the public.
The Assembly bill would require law enforcement to release body camera footage within 45 days in cases of officer-involved shootings and other serious uses of force. It contains an exception for cases in which release would interfere with an ongoing investigation. It also allows for redaction to protect the privacy of people caught on camera.
Police departments are quick to release footage when it supports their version of events or shows officers in a good light. Too often, however, they withhold footage that captures misconduct or that might embarrass law enforcement. This bill might take away that temptation.
The Senate bill, meanwhile, would begin to undo a bad law signed by Brown in his first term way back in 1978. That law has kept police personnel records secret, particularly disciplinary records. The secrecy was so broad that even prosecutors and defense attorneys often did not have direct access.
If the governor signs this bill, misconduct records related to shootings, major force incidents, confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying on duty would no longer be confidential. The people who pay the bills and must rely on the integrity of police would have a new window into who the bad actors are and how widespread or not misconduct is.
These two bills mark a significant change for California. For decades, the state has had some of the softest disclosure laws for law enforcement records, especially those dealing with officer-involved shootings. In the era of Black Lives Matter and increasing public interest in police activities, that needed to change.
As the law now stands, trust in law enforcement is simply expected. People are expected to take police officers’ word for what happened and their superiors’ assurances that alleged misconduct was handled appropriately.
Californians and Americans have seen far too much misconduct in recent years to warrant blind faith. Trust must be earned, and transparency is the best way to earn it.
Police unions and lobbyists have opposed even these modest changes for a long time. On the eve of the votes, the Los Angeles police union gave $4,400 each, the maximum donation allowed, to a dozen Assembly Democrats viewed as sympathetic to law enforcement. A union official insisted to a Los Angeles Times reporter that the timing was a coincidence and the donations had nothing to do with the upcoming votes.
Both bills contain enough exceptions for when confidentiality serves the public good or personal privacy rights need protecting. In fact, the bills arguably still don’t go far enough. Other states remain ahead of Californian on police transparency.
But Californians must take what they can get after years of lawmakers’ trying to get similar changes passed. Perhaps when these laws have had a chance to prove their success, as they have in other states, further disclosure and independent oversight rules might have a chance at passage in Sacramento.
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