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Police transparency reaches a stalemate at the Capitol

Police transparency reaches a stalemate at the Capitol
A Los Angeles Police Department sergeant demonstrates a body camera in 2014. (Los Angeles Times)

California lawmakers have reached a stalemate over how much the public should know about the official activities of police officers.

All but one of the major pieces of legislation introduced this year to either increase access to police disciplinary records and body camera footage or further restrict disclosure are now dead after a state Senate committee killed two bills Tuesday that would have given officers greater control over the handling of body camera videos.

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The result is that little has changed in terms of public access to police information in California in the nearly two years since the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., unfurled a wave of protests and counterefforts across the country. Numerous policy and procedural questions remain for state lawmakers to address as police departments, including Los Angeles, outfit officers with body-worn cameras.

"No matter where you are on body camera policy, no matter which side you fall on, this doesn't help anybody," said Assemblyman Jim Cooper (D-Elk Grove), whose bill to allow officers to review camera footage before writing their reports was voted down in the Senate Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

The Senate committee also killed a measure from Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) that would have given officers three days to formally protest the release of any audio or video recording if they believed their safety was at risk. A bill from Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Campbell), which would limit the release of footage showing a police officer's death, did advance out of the committee.

But in the debate on all three bills, committee members said efforts to further restrict access to police information made little sense at a time of increased mistrust between law enforcement and communities.

"Unfortunately, I cannot vote for less transparency," said Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) during discussion of Low's bill.

Leno said the recent failure of his own police transparency bill drove his decision. Last month, a Senate committee halted Leno's effort to make public internal disciplinary investigations of cases in which departments found officers who committed sexual assault, racially profiled, lied on the job or engaged in other serious cases of misconduct.

Similarly, a bill that would have allowed the public to request police body camera footage of incidents in which officers were accused of excessive force, including police-involved shootings, died on the Assembly floor last month.

Law enforcement groups argued strongly against the efforts to increase transparency, calling them counterproductive measures that would invade officer privacy without improving community trust. Leno has said the groups' influence is so powerful at the Capitol that a statewide ballot measure might be the only way to loosen police disclosure laws.

But law enforcement groups, including the 66,000-member Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, could not get enough support to move all of their body camera bills through the Legislature. The association, which represents the largest number of rank-and-file officers in the state, was the key backer of all three bills that were heard Tuesday.

The failure of the bills, along with the advancement of Low's measure, leaves the state's status quo intact — one that limits public access to police records.

California has some of the strictest laws in the nation against releasing information related to police misconduct. Roughly half of the states prohibit the disclosure of internal officer records, but California is one of just three that gives law enforcement officers specific protections.

On body cameras, the Los Angeles Police Department officials have said the department will not release any footage absent a court order as it prepares to outfit 7,000 officers with the cameras by the end of next year. Police departments in Oakland and San Diego have been making some footage public in recent months, but there's no legal requirement for any department to do so.

"Certainly this is not a case of you win some, you lose some," said Peter Bibring, the director of police practices at the American Civil Liberties Union of California, which was a key backer of Leno's effort and opposed the three police-sponsored body camera bills. "After this legislative session, the governing principle is still nearly total secrecy on police records."

Santiago said he and his colleagues are still working through the deep privacy and transparency concerns raised by body cameras and other issues surrounding police accountability. He expected similar legislation to return next year.

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"These issues are not going to go away because they're not solved," Santiago said.

Follow me at @dillonliam on Twitter

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