A 40-year era of police secrecy in California comes to an end Tuesday, and law enforcement agencies and officers ought to be ready. A new law requires them to turn over, on public request, records of officers’ dishonesty, sexual misconduct and use of injurious or potentially deadly force. Keeping secrets takes time, money and effort; sharing information should be relatively straightforward. Police and sheriff’s departments and officer unions would be wise to embrace the new law and the opportunity to win back a measure of public trust by quickly releasing requested data.
Yet some police agencies and unions are mounting a last-ditch effort to resist the new transparency law, Senate Bill 1421.
Employee groups asked the state Supreme Court this month to limit the law’s reach to only new police records — those created after Jan. 1. LAPD Chief Michel Moore wrote to the bill’s author, Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), on Dec. 3 to express his concern that the law would be interpreted as retroactive — something that would be “exceptionally burdensome and would require significant reallocation of front-line investigative personnel.”
Other departments are stalling, saying they lack the time and resources to respond to the anticipated onslaught of Public Records Act requests, and some city and county officials are mulling fees to offset the costs of compliance. The Inglewood City Council, as the Los Angeles Times reported, voted to shred records of police uses of force that current law does not require them to keep.
This collective resistance to the law does not inspire confidence in the agencies we entrust with law enforcement.
SB 1421 makes clear that certain records that until now have been kept secret have to be disclosed on request. The point is to provide the public with essential information about the people they hire to protect and serve them. There is no safe harbor for past misconduct.
Such information had long been subject to disclosure until a series of bills enacted in the 1970s cut off public access. That ill-considered legislation didn’t seal only new records while leaving existing records available for public perusal. It sealed all records, prospectively and retrospectively.
Likewise, in reversing that mistake, current lawmakers (but the same governor as 40 years ago — Jerry Brown) acted to again make all those records public — past, present and future. Not just records that are convenient for police departments to turn over. Not just records that won’t cost departments anything to produce. All records that the bill labels public.
Even then, SB 1421 does not make records of unverified complaints part of the public record, although a case can be made that they should be.
The disclosure law is modest and limited. Just not quite as modest and limited as police unions and some departments would like it to be.
The Los Angeles Police Department, to its credit and unlike the Inglewood police, preserves the information gathered in the course of use-of-force and disciplinary investigations. So yes, that means there are old records that could be the subject of public requests. And yes, to produce them the department may have to sift through paper files, VHS tapes and other outmoded storage formats and then digitize the results. Citing one use-of-force case, Moore wrote in his letter that the file includes more than 2,000 pages, 11 hours of video, 18 hours of audio, 813 photos, and three hours of radio and 911 call time — and would take 267 work hours to review for release.
No doubt, compliance with the law will take resources. But recall that the LAPD ordered officers to wear body cameras despite arguments that complying with requests for footage would require new resources. The value of cameras — to officers and to the department, as well as to the public — has justified it.
Another state law passed this year will mandate body cameras, and the LAPD will be ready (unlike the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which has resisted body cameras because of anticipated costs).
The LAPD, the Sheriff’s Department and other law enforcement agencies throughout California ought to be at least as ready to release use-of-force and discipline records — just as many of them once did. It may be burdensome at first, and cities and counties may have to allocate funding. But in the end, sharing information should become simple, inexpensive — and part of the regular course of police business.