Police Transparency Handbook


police transparency handbook

Police Transparency Handbook


For decades, California was one of the most secretive states when it came to internal law enforcement records, with officers having more privacy protections than other government employees.

This veil of secrecy began to lift starting in 2019, after California passed landmark legislation that made certain use-of-force and officer misconduct records accessible under the California Public Records Act.

Senate Bill 1421, The Right to Know Act of 2018, opened up public access to records about police shootings and other uses of force, as well as internal records about several types of officer misconduct. A companion bill, Assembly Bill 748, opened up access to audio and video recordings, such as body camera footage and 911 calls, from police shootings and instances when officer force caused significant injuries. The public’s demand for more police transparency spurred lawmakers to further increase access in 2021, when they passed Senate Bill 16, which expands the categories of officer misconduct that agencies must disclose. Together, these laws significantly expand public access to previously secret internal affairs reports, audio and video recordings, witness statements and much more related to  misconduct and officers’ violent interactions with the public.

While this series of legislation created a sea change in California, allowing the press and public to better perform their oversight role, meaningful and timely access is often thwarted by agency practice and legal threats.

When the laws were enacted, law enforcement labor unions rushed to the courts to try to limit the scope of the new laws and keep information under wraps. News organizations and transparency advocates, including the First Amendment Coalition, formed the resistance and obtained important court decisions protecting the public’s access. Today, many aspects of these laws remain the subject of vigorous debate, varying law enforcement agency interpretation and ongoing legal challenges.

This resource is designed to help you navigate these laws and exercise your right to know. The Police Transparency Handbook’s anchoring document, an in-depth Legal Guide, provides a detailed overview of the key statutes and relevant court cases. The handbook also contains Frequently Asked Questions and sample Public Records Act request letters (one for case files and one for “critical incident” recordings) you can use to generate your own requests.

You can also use FAC’s free Legal Hotline for help navigating these laws. Journalists on deadline and those seeking custom training sessions can contact the FAC team directly at legal@firstamendmentcoalition.org or (415) 460-5060.