The First Amendment Coalition strongly supports California Senate Bill 1421, which would bring long-overdue transparency to records relating to police misconduct. The bill would require disclosure of records relating to investigations of serious police misconduct, including officer-involved shootings and instances where police officers have lied under oath.
Law enforcement officers are alone among public employees in California (at least those who work for agencies subject to the California Public Records Act) in being able to keep secret even confirmed allegations of misconduct. For everyone except police officers, investigations into misconduct must be made public if the charges are “well-founded,” or if discipline is imposed.
California has long been an outlier in the degree to which it allows records created by law enforcement to be kept out of public view. Many if not most states require, for example, the disclosure of police reports; California does not. Of even greater importance to the greater public good, California unlike a majority of states requires secrecy for records about alleged (and even confirmed) police misconduct.
So if, for example, a police officer in California shoots and kills someone, records of the internal investigation into that shooting remain confidential — even if the officer is found to have been in the wrong, and even if the officer is disciplined for that misconduct, including by being fired. Twenty-seven states require such records to be disclosed. Of the 10 largest states, California is only one of four that require secrecy for such records.
There is no principled reason in law or policy for police officer misconduct files to remain under this shroud of secrecy. Given the extraordinary power and discretion law enforcement officers have, when they abuse the public trust, the public is entitled to know about and to know the details. SB 1421 would begin to shed some light on records that have been in the dark for far to long, and so FAC strongly supports the legislation.
If you agree, we urge you to contact your legislator and tell them that.
The bill is being heard on April 17 at 9:00 a.m. in the Senate Public Safety Committee.
Here is a copy of FAC’s letter of support for SB 1421, submitted today: