Lawmaker introduces bill to beef up police transparency law, fine agencies that don’t comply

Lawmaker introduces bill to beef up police transparency law, fine agencies that don’t comply

Public access to police officer disciplinary and use-of-force cases in California, including records about racist and discriminatory acts by cops, would be greatly expanded under legislation introduced Monday in Sacramento.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, announced the effort to reform and broaden Senate Bill 1421, the landmark police accountability law she sponsored in 2018, and which took effect Jan. 1, 2019. That law requires police to release to public records about officer shootings, use of force, sexual misconduct and dishonesty.

Senate Bill 776 would expand the existing law, include fines for public agencies that fail to provide records and allow the public to seek punitive damages if they are forced to sue to obtain the records.

Skinner also introduced a companion bill, Senate Bill 773, that would route 911 emergency calls about mental illnesses and drug overdoses away from police to social services agencies. Skinner brought both pieces of legislation forward Monday, the last day of the current legislative session to “gut and amend” existing bills and replace the content with new material.

Expanded access to records

In a prepared statement, Skinner said SB 776 will:

  • Expand access to all records involving police use of force (not just incidents that result in death or great bodily injury), except for frivolous complaints.
  • Expand access to all records involving police dishonesty related to criminal investigations and on-the-job sexual assault (not just complaints that are sustained), excluding frivolous complaints.
  • Provide access to all disciplinary records involving officers who have engaged in racist, homophobic or anti-Semitic behavior, or actions against any other protected class — again, as long as the complaints are not frivolous.
  • Require access to those records even when an officer resigns before the agency’s investigation is complete
  • Provide access to sustained findings of wrongful arrests and wrongful searches.

The bill also mandates that before hiring any candidate who has prior law enforcement experience, an agency must inquire about and review the officer’s prior history of complaints, disciplinary hearings and uses of force.

It also eliminates the five-year rule on retention of police records and allows agencies to only charge the public for the direct cost of duplicating records, not the cost of editing and redacting those records.

Civil fines allowed

Civil fines of $1,000 a day could be charged for agencies that fail to release records. Also, punitive damages could be sought in court when an agency is sued for not releasing records or improperly redacting them.

Skinner was not immediately available for comment Monday afternoon. In a prepared statement, however, she said: “When officers commit illegal, violent, or discriminatory acts, taxpayers are on the hook for massive cash payouts to settle lawsuits. This has a real-time effect on governments’ ability to fund education, health care, homelessness programs, and other services our communities expect the government to fund.

“S.B. 776 will ensure that law enforcement agencies and the public know when an officer has engaged in misconduct.”

The bill creating fines and punitive damages is needed to force agencies that have been stalling in the release of records for 18 months to comply with the law, said Bert Robinson, senior editor for the Bay Area News Group, the Northern California counterpart of the Southern California News Group.

Agencies ‘hiding’ records

“Even as the public demands increased police transparency in the wake of George Floyd’s death and other horrific incidents, California departments continue to drag their feet in revealing the details of their use of force,” Robinson said, singling out the California Highway Patrol and the San Jose Police Department as “SB 1421 scofflaws.”

“I wish it weren’t necessary to threaten these agencies with financial penalties for hiding records at a time when they need to be investing every available dollar in their communities. But sadly, their duty to the public is not enough to get them to follow the law.”

In Southern California, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the San Bernardino Police Department both have refused media requests to turn over records unless the names of specific officers or deputies are provided.

Carmen Green, executive director of the California State Sheriffs Association, responded: “We are reviewing the announcement and look forward to additional engagement.”

Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said Monday he needed more time to study the bill.

“SB 1421 was difficult for local agencies to implement due to ambiguous language, no accompanying funding, and a failure to take into account the technological challenges of reviewing and legally-required redaction of records,” Barnes said.

“For any new legislation to be successful, legislators must provide local agencies with the resources needed for implementation, and should also include dialogue with key stakeholders, including law enforcement, to identify and avoid preventable negative impacts.”

Published at Mon, 29 Jun 2020 18:45:00 +0000

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