California has the dubious distinction of being the most secretive state in the nation when it comes to releasing police disciplinary records, but last year lawmakers approved SB 1421, which went into effect on January 1.
Now, in response to a California Public Records Act (“CPRA”) request, records involving incidents related to the discharge of a firearm by a police officer, findings relating to police use of force resulting in death or serious injury, findings relating to sexual assault by a police officer, and sustained findings of dishonesty by a police officer are supposed to be released.
Such records may include evidence, interview recordings, disciplinary records, autopsy reports and reports sent to the district attorney determining whether or not to file charges. However, California's police unions are seeking to block the release of these records.
Temporary Restraining Orders Issued
On January 17, an Orange County judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Sheriff's Department from disclosing records regarding incidents taking place prior to January 1. The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs had argued that retroactively applying SB 1421 violated “longstanding legal protections” for officers. However, an attorney for the county countered that the law applies to documents in the county's possession, and that includes records more than a few weeks old.
Not to be outdone by corrupt Orange County, a court in Los Angeles also issued a temporary order blocking the City of Los Angeles and its police department from releasing similar records. That order was requested by the Los Angeles Police Department's union. Other local law enforcement unions have followed suit.
Escaping Responsibility for Past Acts
To say that police officers opposed the passage of SB 1421 is an understatement. However, the legislature realized that, in an era where excessive use of force by police departments and how law enforcement deals with communities of color is part of the national debate, the time for passing the bill had arrived.
An attorney with the ACLU of Southern California says, “Officers have been escaping responsibility for their past acts,” and it's clear from the lawsuits they want to continue escaping that responsibility. Attorneys for the law enforcement unions say that many records were created with an expectation of privacy, and are now subject to disclosure.
One lawyer said a “reasonable solution” would involve only permitting disclosure of records going back five years or less, rather than an indefinite time. It was 40 years ago that a law was passed keeping such records confidential.
California Supreme Court Declines Clarification
On January 2, the day after SB 1421 was supposed to go into effect, the California Supreme Court declined to clarify whether the law was retroactive. It also did not issue an injunction against the law, as had been requested. That means challenges to the law by police unions and police departments regarding retroactivity must head through the lower courts, individually.
Depending on the outcome of these decisions and subsequent appeals, the California Supreme Court may have to rule on the matter at some point. For now, whether or not records are handed over after a CPRA request depends on the jurisdiction. The attempt to block the release of these records is a coordinated effort by many police unions, and it will take time to play out. Expect it to take months – or longer – before the public can find out just who the dirty cops are.