Gov. Jerry Brown ushered in a new era of transparency in California law enforcement on Sunday, signing two new laws that for the first time give the public access to internal police investigations and video footage of shootings by police officers and other serious incidents.
The measures begin to undo decades of laws and court decisions that had made California the nation’s most secretive state for police records.
“With Governor Brown’s signature, California is finally joining other states in granting access to the investigatory records on officer conduct that the public truly has a right to know,” said Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), the author of one of the measures, Senate Bill 1421, in a statement.
Skinner’s bill allows the public to view investigations of officer shootings and other major uses of force, along with confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying while on duty.
The availability of these records will allow the public to press California police departments and elected officials in ways not possible before, said Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the American Civil Liberties Union of California, which was a principal supporter of both bills.
“People have seen there are systematic problems and the police aren’t being held accountable — or at least the public isn’t aware of it because it’s secret,” Bibring said. “That’s something the public is not willing to ignore.”
Legal experts also say SB 1421 could have a significant effect on the state’s justice system by allowing broader access to records that could bear on the credibility of a police witness who has a history of discipline for dishonesty or other significant misconduct.
California is the only state in which even prosecutors cannot directly obtain officer personnel files. Under the current system, prosecutors and criminal defendants must navigate a labyrinthine process in court to glean information from those files. The procedure, which requires filing a so-called Pitchess motion, often yields only the name and contact information of a complainant against an officer.
A recent Times investigation into secrecy surrounding law enforcement discipline found that past misconduct by police witnesses, whether alleged or proven, routinely is kept hidden in court as a result of California’s confidentiality laws.
The new law opens up interview transcripts, evidence and full investigatory reports to the public, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.
“This is revolutionary,” said San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi. “It would unveil what we have been wanting for a long time.”
Lara Bazelon, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, said the measure could expose officer misconduct that was long withheld from defendants and could lead to numerous convictions being dismissed.
“We are going to see a lot of skeletons falling out of the closets dating back years, if not decades. That means people who were convicted unjustly and unfairly will finally get a chance to be heard,” Bazelon said.
Contra Costa County prosecutors tossed 19 convictions in 2016 and 2017 after a police lieutenant revealed to a judge that files showing internal investigations into two officers had not been disclosed in criminal cases featuring the officers.
California’s rules prohibiting the public release of law enforcement records date back four decades. At the time, police unions and other law enforcement officials were complaining that criminal defense attorneys had flooded departments with requests for complaints against officers. Before the 1978 law was passed, the Los Angeles Police Department shredded four tons of prior complaints against officers that hadn’t resulted in a finding of wrongdoing.
In previous years, law enforcement labor groups waged aggressive campaigns to successfully shut down attempts to loosen the state’s police confidentiality laws.
Police unions opposed SB 1421 as well. Brian Marvel, the head of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California — the state’s largest law enforcement labor organization — said he worried the new disclosure rules would put officers at risk. Earlier this year, protesters angry over the killing of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man in Sacramento, gathered at the wedding of a police officer after identifying him as one of the officers who shot Clark, and Marvel said releasing more information about officers could lead to more confrontations that could turn violent.
“There would be a greater potential for officers and their families being harmed by having all of their information being put out publicly,” Marvel said.
Labor officials had used similar arguments in the past to defeat transparency proposals. But Marvel said their position wasn’t as effective this year because public opinion has shifted against officers, pressuring lawmakers to act differently. Legislators and civil rights activists similarly have cited the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and increased scrutiny on police killings of civilians as reasons why SB 1421 passed when prior attempts at changing the transparency laws failed.
Brown signed the original 1978 police confidentiality law during his first term in office. He did not issue a statement after signing the bill, and a spokesman declined to comment on the decision.
Besides the open records law, Brown signed a second measure, Assembly Bill 748, requiring departments statewide to release body-worn camera and other video and audio recordings of officer shootings and serious uses of force within 45 days unless doing so would interfere with an ongoing investigation.
This law, modeled after a new LAPD policy on releasing body-camera video, makes California’s rules for releasing footage some of the most transparent in the country, according to research by Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
The body-camera law also breaks a long stalemate in the Legislature over setting statewide rules on releasing the police recordings. Multiple proposals in recent years either to make the videos public or limit access had failed before AB 748.
“Public access to body camera footage is necessary to boost confidence and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve,” said Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), the bill’s author, in a statement.
The new transparency laws could spur more efforts to increase public access to policing records in the state. Marvel, the police union leader, said he’d like to release body-camera footage of day-to-day interactions officers have with community members, such as typical traffic stops, so that the public has a better sense of what regular policing is like.
“If the only thing we’re releasing is negative contacts with people, then that becomes the narrative,” Marvel said.
The new open records law takes effect Jan. 1. The body-camera law won’t be implemented until July 1 to give police departments more time to update their policies on disclosure.