Public backs greater access to police records, ACLU poll finds
California voters widely support lifting the veil of secrecy that prevents the public from learning about police disciplinary matters or viewing footage from body cameras, according to a poll released Wednesday.
The results of the July survey come as lawmakers and police officials grapple with ways to restore public trust in law enforcement, which has come under scrutiny after a series of high-profile killings by officers across the country. Critics have called for more transparency of police conduct to help hold officers accountable for their actions.
California’s laws protecting police records are among the most restrictive in the country, in part because politically strong police unions have worked to thwart changes. Officers’ personnel records and disciplinary history are kept private under state law. Agencies are also allowed to withhold information that they deem investigative records — including body camera footage.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which commissioned the 900-person survey, hailed the results as a sign that voters wanted change.
“These numbers clearly show that state law is out of step with the public’s understanding of how transparent police should be,” said Peter Bibring, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Southern California chapter. “The Legislature is failing the people by ignoring this problem and if they don’t act, the people will act themselves.”
Nearly 80% of the voters polled said they believed the public should have access to investigations into misconduct by an officer. Sixty-four percent said they believed the public should be able to access investigations into alleged misconduct, including any discipline that was imposed.
And more than 70% said they believed body camera footage should be publicly accessible in situations in which an officer used force or was accused of misconduct.
Peter Scheer, director of the Bay Area-based First Amendment Coalition, said he wasn’t surprised that the numbers were so high given the increased public attention on police. In the past, he said, only “public policy junkies” paid attention to the limited access to police records.
“People are now on high alert about this issue,” he said.
Martin J. Mayer, an Orange County attorney who counsels dozens of law enforcement agencies and unions, including the California Peace Officers’ Assn., questioned whether the 900 people surveyed represented widespread demand for change.
Police are already scrutinized by outside entities such as civilian oversight boards, county prosecutors and state and federal officials, he said. If the public wants more access to police records, he said, there were mechanisms in place to obtain it.
“It is state law. If the public wants it to be changed, then change it,” he said. “Until then, I and my clients will obey the law.”
But changing police-related law in California is no easy task. Lawmakers proposed a flurry of bills this year aimed at repairing relationships between police and communities, many of which faced opposition from powerful police unions.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) wrote one of those proposals, designed to regulate how police use body cameras. Despite a number of amendments intended to reach a consensus, she said, law enforcement officials were able to influence other politicians and stymie the bill (AB 66).
“Their influence was greater than the influence of the community,” Weber said.
But the assemblywoman said she was confident that the growing public support for increased transparency would someday amount to legislative change.
“The polls are clear and I think we’re serious about trying to repair and improve relationships,” she said. “The public needs to be assured that there’s nothing being hidden.”
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