Op-Ed: Does the public have a right to know a cop’s history?
If a police officer pulls you over for a burned out taillight, he can quickly learn your name, home address, place of birth, sex and eye color; every minor traffic infraction on your record; your criminal history at the local, state and federal levels; whether you’re on probation or parole; and whether there are any warrants out for your arrest.
With a bit more effort, he can feed your vehicle information into a license plate reader database to generate a partial list of places you’ve driven around town. If he merely suspects you in a robbery or a rape or a murder, he can announce that to the media. If he arrests you for drunk driving or buying illegal narcotics or soliciting a prostitute, he can send your name and photo to the newspaper even before your trial. If it turns out that you’re not guilty, law enforcement officials are not compelled to correct the record.
But if you’re pulled over by a police officer who treats you rudely, gives you a citation without cause, makes a crude remark to your spouse or needlessly pats you down in a way that you find invasive, it is exceedingly difficult in California to obtain information on that cop’s professional history – much harder than in Texas, Kentucky and many other states, according to civil liberties advocates who believe the public has a right to know when a public servant engages in racial profiling, or sexual misconduct, or even kills in the line of duty.
That’s right: If a police officer kills you, there’s no guarantee that your next of kin will be able to determine if that same cop has killed someone — or five someones — in the line of duty before. In fact, police departments are currently banned from releasing information related to police discipline even if a citizen specifically seeks it through a public records request. Barring unusual leaks or unusually aggressive investigative journalism, cops who’ve repeatedly shown that they’re bad at their jobs can effectively conceal their records.
There are state legislators who find that unacceptable. Senators Mark Leno of San Francisco, Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles and John Moorlach of Costa Mesa, along with Assembly member Shirley Weber of San Diego, have sponsored a bill that would give the public a right to know about officer-involved shootings and confirmed cases of serious misconduct – that is to say, cases where police departments concluded that cops betrayed the public trust.
But powerful law enforcement unions staunchly oppose opening personnel files to records requests.
There is no evidence suggesting that transparency guidelines in other states expose cops to extra danger.
And right before Memorial Day weekend, the law-enforcement transparency bill died without so much as a vote of the full legislature, meaning the public cannot hold their representatives accountable for their positions.
“This was not union thuggery in the legislature,” Mike Durant, president of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, told the Wall Street Journal. “This was many different law-enforcement organizations sitting down with the senators and talking about our concerns.”
But the ACLU characterized those concerns as maintaining a “blue wall of silence.”
“Last year, 211 people were killed by police in California – more than in any other state,” the civil liberties organization declared, “yet state law will continue to shield from public view the full findings of investigations into each and every one of these and all future killings.”
Assembly Bill 1680 died too. That proposed law would have helped local police departments to buy body cameras, a technology that protects Californians from bad cops and good cops from prosecution when they have to make difficult decisions.
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Miguel Santiago of Los Angeles is pushing to erect yet another obstacle to public disclosures – a bill that would require at least three days’ notice before any audio or video recorded by a police officer, of a police officer, is released on the Internet. Evidently, his concern for privacy does not extend beyond people in uniform. Law enforcement is not required to provide any notice to California residents before releasing video footage in which they appear.
All this is exactly backward.
The typical Californian has precious little power over anyone, whereas the typical California police officer is armed with a gun and the discretion to use lethal force on behalf of the state. There is no profession where it is more important to identify incompetence, no profession where bad apples can so easily deprive innocents of liberty or even life.
There’s no denying that cops have a vital and dangerous job. But narrow exemptions already exist to shelter police officers who have specific reason to believe the release of video footage could harm their personal safety. And there is no evidence suggesting that transparency guidelines in other states expose cops to extra danger.
The legislature is failing the public on this matter. If it continues to put the agenda of a public employee union above its obligation to keep law enforcement accountable, the public ought to settle this matter at the ballot box, where a proposal to force transparency around police misconduct would likely be popular with voters.
Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.
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