Exploring California’s new transparency bills
Monday, October 08, 2018
California Gov. Jerry Brown signed two law enforcement transparency bills into law on Sept. 30, marking a historic new era for in law enforcement in the Golden State.
At a time when police and community relations are at best tenuous, a law like this can go a long way to assuage public concerns about safety and civil rights. The two bills in the spotlight will increase access to law enforcement records and body camera footage.
Assembly Bill 748 requires police to release body camera footage to the public within 45 days of a critical incident occurring.
A critical incident is a situation that involves use of force and causes death, serious injury or discharge of a firearm. In such cases, the public has the right to know that there was a thorough investigation.
Senate Bill 1421 will allow public access of police records in cases involving on-the-job sexual assault; firearm discharge; and suspicion of dishonesty in a report, investigation or prosecution of a crime.
In the past, police departments often cited a pending investigation to withhold recordings under the public records act. Now, with a waiting period in place, they will have to release body camera footage. Both bills will take effect on July 1, 2019.
There is a debate about how much we should know about how local law enforcement agencies operate. For the people of California, this is a great victory.
Local departments will now publish their policies, practices, training and operating procedures online starting in January 2020. That opens access to this information for everyone beyond journalists or activists.
Communities need to know what the newest surveillance technologies are and how they are used. These new and emerging technologies have drawn significant public interest and concern. People want to know precisely how body-worn cameras, drones, biometric scanners, and automatic license plate readers are used in police work.
California is not the first to grant access to records of officer investigation and conduct. But it is a state that has had one of the worst reputations about police work. It has been branded as the nation's most secretive state for police records.
For decades, there have been public outcries that police record unavailability is a systematic problem in the state. California is the only state where even prosecutors are not allowed to get officer personnel files directly.
Instead, they must navigate through a complicated process called Pitchess motion to glean information from those files. Even then, they end up with only the name and contact information of a complainant against an officer in most cases.
The new laws may have a significant effect on the state's justice system. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have called this a revolutionary move. Evidence, full investigatory reports and interview transcripts will now be open to officers of the court and the public alike.
Allowing broader access to records could impact the credibility of a police witness. This is especially important for officers with a history of discipline issues, or one that has a record for dishonesty and misconduct. It has been a long-standing norm to keep past misconduct by police witnesses hidden because of California's confidentiality laws.
There are mixed reactions from law enforcement agencies, since exposing officer misconduct could lead to many convictions being dismissed. Unjust and unfair conviction cases will be reopened.
Agencies are also worried that the new disclosure rules could put officer lives at risk. Law enforcement labor groups have waged aggressive campaigns in the past to prevent the state from loosening police confidentiality laws.
In the age of #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter, this kind of transparency is a big way to boost confidence and regain faith in the law enforcement. It remains to be seen how many other states will take the same initiative.
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