When AB 1412 came into effect in January 2019, it was supposed to usher in a new era of law enforcement transparency in California. Instead, the avalanche of requests for records has been met with determined resistance in the form of delays, obfuscation, and court filings for injunctions against the requirements of the new law.
On the one side are the victims of police violence and their surviving family members, journalists, and civic organizations, working individually and in concert to force compliance with new transparency standards. These include the newly formed California Reporting Project, a coalition of more than 30 media outlets and academic groups, including “KQED, the Bay Area News Group, UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, KPCC, Capital Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times,” who have filed requests for documents with “675 police agencies in all 58 counties since January 1,” according to a recent article from capradio.org. Capital Public Radio reports that “more than 1,100 public records requests” have been filed under the new law statewide.
The other side consists of the police unions, county authorities, and the California Department of Justice. Under the direction of Attorney General Xavier Becerra, their strategies have been to:
- Request injunctions to try to limit the scope of the law
- Destroy records which the law does not require them to preserve
- Stonewall requests for records or slow-walk their release
Each side has reason and emotion behind their arguments. Those making requests want to know if the full truth has been told about incidents of police violence. One poignant example is Richard Perez, whose “24-year-old son…was unarmed when he was shot and killed outside a liquor store in 2014 by then-Richmond Police Officer Wallace Jensen,” who “no longer works for the department.” Mr. Perez feels it’s too easy for an officer to claim, “I feared for my life,” and walk away from a tragic shooting.
Advocates for greater transparency also want to know whether cops who are on the job today have disciplinary records that should disqualify them for service. Such knowledge could prevent excessive force and abuse of the public in the future.
Law enforcement entities object to having their resistance characterized as an effort to cover up “dark secrets.” Some argue that the indiscriminate release of records could damage the state’s ability to investigate police misconduct. “Officers have long relied on the expectation that information from internal affairs investigations would be kept confidential.”
Records of those proceedings have always taken confidentiality as a given, and therefore are not appropriate for unfiltered release. Benjamin Therriault, the Richmond Police Officers Association president, contends “the new law changes the rules of the game halfway through,” which is why police officer unions had gone to court to block the release of documents created before the law came into effect.
However, law enforcement has not been successful in pressing that point. A “Ventura County judge is so far the only one in the state to preliminarily rule in favor of keeping records from before this year secret.”
Attorney General Becerra has “declined to provide pre-2019 misconduct and shooting information held by the California Department of Justice.“ His statement asserts that “until the legal question of retroactive application of the statute is resolved by the courts, the public interest in accessing these records is clearly outweighed by the public’s interest in protecting privacy rights.” Thankfully, on March 6, 2019, the California Supreme Court made it clear that Becerra was on the wrong side of the law.
Meanwhile, “some cities rushed to destroy the documents they could, under state law, before Jan. 1.” Morgan Hill City Attorney Donald Larkin wrote in an email to Capital Public Radio that the city had “burned eight banker’s boxes of records on Dec. 27,” which included “background reports for people applying to be police officers and internal investigation reports dating back to 1990.”
CPR reports that “Fremont also shredded documentation related to citizen complaints and administrative investigations going back to 2010” and “the city of Inglewood destroyed more than 100 shooting records in the final weeks of 2018.”
Let’s break this down; ‘We the People’ pass a law for transparency and law enforcement reacts by burning those same records? This is a stark example of law enforcement creating a situation where laws apply to the people but not to them. We need to strive to be a nation of laws and not of badges and boots.