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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Legislature Moving on Legislation that Would Restore Civilian Oversight of Police in Wake of California Supreme Court Decision

Last year in Davis, the issue of civilian oversight was one of the hot issues stemming from several high profile incidents in Davis last year regarding not only complaints of police conduct, but the difficulty of navigating through the complaint system.

With the Davis City Council adoption of an ombudsman and the subsequent hiring of Bob Aaronson to fill that position, the issue has disappeared from the radar of most Davisites.

During the contentious February 21, 2007 meeting from last year, one of the prime objections made by City Attorney Harriet Steiner had to do with questions of the legality of public access to misconduct records from the police.

The California Supreme Court has since ruled in Copley Press v. Superior Court, that the public does not have access to the disclosure of records relating to a peace officer's appeal of a disciplinary action under the California Public Records Act. This act effectively stripped civilian review boards of their ability to review officer's personnel records in their investigations and led to the halting of public police disciplinary proceedings after the Supreme Court ruling.

This ruling was further bolstered in February when an Alameda County Jude ruled that the Berkeley Police Review Commission's public hearings violated state confidentiality law.

According to a recent Los Angeles Times Article:
"California law is among the most restrictive in the country concerning the release of information about police misconduct. Florida, Georgia, Ohio, South Carolina and Texas have had "sunshine" laws for many years without adverse consequences to police officers. These laws require public records to be open. California law, by contrast, keeps the media and the public in the dark."
However, supporters of civilian review, have not completely lost this battle--at least not quite yet. There are a number of laws making their way through the legislature including SB 1019 sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero of Los Angeles and AB 1648 authored by Assemblyman Mark Leno of San Francisco.

The Senate Bill has already passed committee and according to Senator Mike Machado's office will come to the floor in the next two weeks. The Assembly Bill has not yet passed the committee, but is expected to shortly.

These bills would do three things.

First, they would overturn the Supreme Court decision and restore the limited public access to police complaint records that existed prior to the Supreme Court's ruling.

Second, they would allow for greater public access to information about those cases that are sustained including the ruling, charges brought for, and any displinary action. In addition they would authorize a police chief to release internal documentation supporting the department's findings when an outside agencies rules that an officer's conduct is in violation of the law or police policy.

Finally, these records would be made accessible under the California Public Records Act, so any individual could make a request.

Neither of Davis' legislators have taken a stance on this legislation.

There is a long list of supporters including National Black Police Association, LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, LA Police Chief William Bratton, ACLU, San Francisco Board of Supervisors, NACOLE (National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement), the Democratic Party of Alameda County, San Francisco County, the Los Angeles Times, Orange County Register, among others.

It was only in the wake of what happened in Los Angeles two weeks ago that Villaraigosa and Bratton are fully supportive of SB 1019.

The incident in Los Angeles gives this bill a new shot of momentum as under the current law, as the Los Angeles Times reports, the police chief would be prohibited from disclosing the names of the officers involved in the incident, moreover whether the officers had any prior sustained force complaints. There has to be some sort of transparency that enables police officers and frankly any public official to be held accountable for their actions and the public to be able to determine whether or not they have.

Moreover, and this also can vindicate officers in addition to indict them, the public would not have access to facts developed in the disciplinary investigation including witness testimony. It could be that the officers are vindicated by these findings, but the public would not be able to find out about them--they would have suspicions based on what they have seen and heard in the media.

I think Bernard Parks, the former LAPD Chief made this point exceptionally well in a letter to Senator Romero quoted in the LA Times article:
"Ultimately … the public should have a right to know about how their government works and functions. Secrecy around citizen complaints and police misconduct will only result in greater mistrust of the police, poor police-community relations and ultimately less responsive and accountable police agencies. SB 1019 presents a step in the right direction toward addressing the problems caused by the Copley Press decision."
---Doug Paul Davis reporting