Police transparency and gaining trust

Two years ago, then-California state senator Mark Leno took a crack at holding police accountable for their misdeeds by authoring SB 1286.

The bill would have allowed the public access to reports that documented instances in which law enforcement officers were guilty of lying on the job, committing sexual assault, excessive force and other abuses of the public’s trust.

Opposed to the bill, not surprisingly, were many of the state’s law enforcement unions who argued that making such information available to the public would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy and needlessly place the lives of officers in jeopardy.
The common sense and much needed bill ultimately died in the legislature after a Senate committee applied a choke hold on the bill.

It was a win for police unions and rogue cops across the state. Good cops and the public were the losers.

Leno and SB 1286 may be gone but attempts at reforming police accountability live on thanks to a new transparency champion.

Sen. Nancy Skinner’s Senate Bill 1421 picks up where Leno’s bill left off — it hopes to open to the public records that reveal police disciplinary accounts related to use of force, sexual assault and lying.

This time around Skinner and other reasonable minded lawmakers have some tentative unexpected allies — police unions.

A story in the Los Angeles Times quoted a Riverside sheriff’s union lobbyist as saying

“We’re going to be open to supporting efforts that would allow for some records to be released.”

While hardly a bear hug of an endorsement for transparency or an ironclad commitment to supporting the bill as it makes its way through various committees and hearings, it is still a welcome gesture.

Bad cops — those who, for example, lie, cheat, steal, abuse, kill or otherwise do what their criminal counterparts do without benefit of a badge and powerful union — have been protected too long by California’s stringent confidentiality laws benefitting police.
Today, unless records are made available to attorneys during court proceedings (in some instances obtaining those records can occasionally require their own set of legal battles), the history of an officer who has been investigated or disciplined for actions that go beyond infractions of police policy is not available to the public.

The same people who are expected to turn to, trust and support police financially and emotionally are not allowed to know if any of those officers have betrayed that trust at any time as a law enforcement officer. They are not allowed to know if the cop accused and disciplined for assaulting women or profiling citizens had a documented history of that behavior while wearing a badge.

Hopefully SB 1421 makes its way through the state legislature and after some fine tuning starts separating the bad cops from the vast majority of the good ones.