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Keeping People in the Dark

It’s already too difficult to learn much about disciplinary actions against police, sheriff’s deputies and other peace officers. State law and local regulations restrict access to such information, leaving only scant statistical data publicly available in some places.

Some daylight shines on these proceedings, however, when a peace officer appeals a termination or other sanction to a local civil service commission. In many jurisdictions, hearings are almost always open. Many records become available as part of the appeal.

A bill proposed by state Sen. Lucy Killea, (D-San Diego), could shutter these hearings, and possibly others, by placing personnel records off-limits to public inspection. With the files unavailable for public scrutiny, hearing officers may have no choice but to hold private sessions when the material is discussed.

Killea’s bill, initiated by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s association, is opposed by her hometown of San Diego and other government agencies. But it cleared the Senate without dissent and will be heard by an Assembly committee Tuesday. We hope it gets no further.

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Police may believe otherwise, but the media and the public aren’t interested in their sensitive background information out of mere curiosity. An occasional glimpse into the inner workings of a publicly funded institution whose employees occasionally use lethal force is a critical check on potential abuses of power. Who would argue that the public has no right to details about an officer sanctioned for excessive use of force, even if the case never gets to civil or criminal court?

The bill’s backers argue that some officers refuse to appeal disciplinary action because having their cases splattered across TV screens is worse punishment. Killea believes that files kept confidential during administrative review should not become public during an appeal. District attorneys weed out violent cops, she says.

But an officer’s privacy claims must be balanced against citizens’ right to know that police misconduct is addressed responsibly. If records and proceedings are private, local government will be hard pressed to maintain public faith in the police who patrol the streets.


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