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Latest Attempt at Police Transparency Fails In California

As police scandals swirl in Northern California, a legislative effort to make the disciplinary records of officers available to the public comes up short.

There are numerous law enforcement scandals unfolding in Northern California.

Last month, San Francisco fired its police chief after a string of officer-involved shootings and two separate episodes involving officers sending racist text messages to one another. In Oakland, the mayor recently ousted two police chiefs in the span of five days amid a widening investigation into allegations that 14 city officers — as well as law enforcement agents from at least three other jurisdictions — had sex with a teenage prostitute. And sheriff’s deputies and corrections officers in San Francisco, Alameda County, and Santa Clara County are facing criminal charges ranging from assault to murder.

While this collection of ugly incidents will continue to generate headlines for months to come, many of the key facts are likely to remain permanently shrouded by California laws placing tight restrictions on the release of law enforcement records and information related to criminal investigations. The state, as an investigation by WNYC radio noted, is one of 23 that deem police misconduct records to be confidential; the only way to obtain such documents is through litigation in the course of a criminal case or civil lawsuit — and even then, the material often must be kept out of the public eye.

This isn’t apt to change any time soon: A California Senate bill aimed at making misconduct and disciplinary information available to the public died in committee last month.

“Police in California shouldn’t be able to operate as if they’re the CIA,” said Chauncee Smith, a legislative advocate with the ACLU of California, which sponsored the proposed legislation, SB 1286, along with the California Newspaper Publishers Association and other groups.

Authored by San Francisco Democrat Mark Leno, the bill would have offered a much clearer view of how law enforcement agencies handle serious allegations of misconduct; in the case of a controversial police shooting, for example, the public would have been entitled obtain to the entire investigative file compiled by police detectives, though any personal data would have been redacted. The legislation also would have allowed the public to learn if any discipline was imposed on the officers involved in the incident.

The bill met resistance from law enforcement organizations from around the state, including the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs and the Peace Officers Research Association of California. In a report to its members, PORAC said greater transparency would endanger officers, making them targets for people seeking revenge in the aftermath of police shootings and would generate more “mistrust” of officers.

Michael Durant, an official with the association, did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement, George Hofstetter of the deputy sheriff’s association said those behind the failed bill had been seeking to “take advantage of the climate currently surrounding law enforcement to eliminate the privacy protections of peace officers.”

The current, protected system stems from a 1978 amendment to the state penal code that bars the disclosure of the personnel records of law enforcement officers. A 2006 ruling by the California Supreme Court effectively tightened the law even further. Additionally, the state’s public records law gives police and prosecutors the power to withhold from public disclosure virtually any document related to both open and closed criminal cases.

As it stands, the inner workings of the state’s police and sheriff departments are completely opaque. Take the San Francisco Police Department, which issues what it calls “Veronese Reports,” named after a long-gone police commissioner. The Veronese Reports compile yearly information on officers who have been disciplined. They do not, however, include the names of the officers, any narrative detail about the offenses, or any notes on how many times the officers have been disciplined.

A typical entry: In internal affairs case number 2013–0177, an officer was disciplined for carrying a gun while under the influence of alcohol and showing up for work while under the influence. He or she received a 30-day suspension and was enrolled in a police substance abuse program. And that’s where the information ends. The story is the same when it comes to police shootings:the San Francisco department publishes quarterly reports that are scrubbed of most salient facts, a common practice around the state.

“It’s a black hole,” said the ACLU’s Smith. “The tax-paying public deserves to know what those who are being paid to protect them are doing — right and wrong.”

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