Back in the 1970s, Los Angeles police officers took the easy way out when they were upset with misconduct complaints: they shredded 30 years' worth of documents.
While more than 100 criminal cases against law enforcement officers required dismissal, the public wasn't exactly enamored when it learned what had happened.
As a result, laws were passed ensuring preservation of these records, but police unions received strict confidentiality in return.
Gaining access to these records – and what police actually did in a given situation – was almost impossible. Even prosecutors could not view these records, which is not the case in every other state in the nation.
California holds the dubious distinction of being the most secretive state in the country when it comes to allowing public access to any sort of use of force or police misconduct records.
On September 1, that changed. The California legislature passed two laws that day. One allows public access to internal police shooting investigations, while the other permits the release of related body camera footage. Governor Jerry Brown must sign these bills for them to take effect.
Police Unions Continue to Object
As the ACLU of Northern California puts it, “The historic legislation will make public information about officers who shoot, kill, or engage in serious misconduct like falsifying evidence or committing sexual assault while on the job.” It's hard to argue why such information should remain concealed, but police labor unions had worked hard to do just that.
The unions said the new law would override the ability of individual departments to set their own disclosure rules as if transparency were one of their major concerns.
The Los Angeles Police Protective League gave the maximum contribution of $4,400 to 12 Democratic members of the Assembly seen as “friendly” to their interests, although the union denied the money was connected to the pending legislation. Apparently, the union spokesman said this with a straight face.
For years, legislators who have tried to open up access to records have faced fierce blowback from law enforcement. A former state senator, Gloria Romero, compared taking on police unions to “wolves coming at you.” However, there was a difference this time.
While the Los Angeles Police Protective League and the Peace Officers Research Association of California strongly opposed the bills, that was not the case with the California Police Chiefs Association.
In the Black Lives Matter era, as public trust in police has diminished dramatically, the CPCA agreed that passing the legislation will improve the public's faith in law enforcement.
While police unions claim the new legislation may negatively affect whistleblowers, deny other officers their privacy rights and cost the government money, the fact is the law will impact only the most egregious cases of police misconduct.
The bottom line is that the police will finally prove accountable, and apparently, quite a few officers aren't happy about that. Oddly enough, more open policies in the other 49 states haven't led to the types of problems about which the police unions are fearmongering.
When officers argue that revealing misconduct might challenge a conviction – well, maybe the person convicted and sitting in prison didn't commit the crime.
Are the unions really arguing that they can no longer set innocent people up the way they have done in the past? In that sense, yes, these bills are going to prove a problem. They aren't going to cause an issue if the cops don't engage in illegal behavior.
The Wrong Side of History
Besides information regarding the use of force, the public should have the right to know about items like witness or evidence tampering and lying. Those law enforcement officials who oppose this openness are on the wrong side of history.
The public – who pays for the salaries and pension benefits of police officers – has undergone a shift in consciousness. The status quo benefits neither the police nor the people they are sworn to protect. These bills have the potential to change the relationship between the public and the police, but only for the better.