PD Editorial: Becerra should join the fight for transparency

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Bullying reporters doesn’t appear anywhere in the California attorney general’s job description.

But that hasn’t stopped Xavier Becerra from threatening journalists from the UC Berkeley Investigative Reporting Program and Investigative Studio who, using the California Public Records Act, legally obtained a list of police officers who have committed crimes.

The list contains nearly 12,000 names of officers and job applicants who have been convicted of a crime in the past 10 years that would disqualify them from being a cop. It was compiled by the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training under a law that took effect Jan. 1.

Included on the list, according to a report written by the Berkeley investigative journalists and posted on KQED’s website, are officers who were convicted of sexual assault, domestic violence, drunken driving, theft, bank robbery, perjury and other serious offenses. Some of them may still be working in law enforcement.

This information belongs in public, but the attorney general is trying to keep it under wraps.

Becerra says the records are confidential, and he threatened legal action, including possible misdemeanor charges, against two reporters unless they destroy the records.

The attorney general claims the names were released inadvertently. But that seems dubious considering that the Peace Officer Standards and Training Commission mulled the reporters’ request for nearly a month before giving them the list.

Moreover, arrest and conviction records are almost universally public, but it would be nearly impossible for a member of the public, including investigative reporters, to compile them.

Had the reporters simply posted the list online, they might have avoided the battle with Becerra. But they did what responsible journalists do: they started working through the list to confirm the information and avoid any misidentifications.

Any suggestion of misdemeanor charges is an empty threat. Under state law, reporters can’t be charged with a crime for receiving records. But reporters shouldn’t be threatened for doing their jobs.

Becerra, who was appointed in 2017 and elected to a full term last year, has generally stuck up for civil liberties. But he seems to have a blind spot where it comes to police unions and transparency.

The attorney general is sitting on the sidelines as police unions try to thwart a new state law ending decades of secrecy about officer-involved shootings, use of force and any proven allegations of sexual misconduct or dishonesty.

Some agencies, including the Healdsburg Police Department, already are making those records public. Some have asked for more time to review records and make any necessary redactions. Still others shredded old records to avoid releasing them, and the unions are in court arguing that the law shouldn’t apply to any cases before 2019.

Becerra, whose job includes defending state laws in court, says he will wait for the courts to decide whether the law applies retroactively. The San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition also is in court, trying to force the attorney general to comply with the law.

Becerra’s resistance to transparency is bad enough. Trying to intimidate reporters is unconscionable.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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