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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Police Oversight Legislation Held Up by Assembly Committee

In August 2006 California Supreme Court decision in Copley Press v. Superior Court, issued a ruling that has effectively shutdown public proceedings for civilian review of police oversight. This ruling has effectively prevented the public from learning about police officers who have been disciplined because of misconduct. Hearings and records that previously were public are now closed. We are not talking about allegations of police misconduct, we are talking about sustained findings that have found officers guilty of actual misconduct.

Since then, a number of bills have moved through the California State Legislature in an attempt to restore the public's right to know about officers who have been found guilty of police misconduct. SB 1019, sponsored by the Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, passed the State Senate earlier this month with strong support in a 22-11 vote.

Yesterday the Assembly Public Safety Committee Chaired by Democrat Jose Solorio, vice-chaired by Republican Greg Aghazarian (who is going to run for the 5th Senate Seat held currently by Mike Machado) took up the bill for review. The other Democrats on this committee include Fiona Ma, Hector De La Torre, and Anthony Portantino.

Senator Romero came before this committee and delivered a brilliant speech in support of police oversight and open government.
This bill is about the public's right to know. It is about the kind of democracy do we want to live in. It is about the public being able to hold our government accountable as public servants. Let's stipulate right away that most peace officers do a great job, by providing public safety. But we do know that peace officer misconduct also exists. I live in a city that has burned twice because of poor police-community relations. We also know that the police and community must have a trusting relationship in order to provide public safety. Police rely on the public to solve crimes and to step forward as witnesses. And policing is done to protect and serve the public and it is best done and trusted when there is nothing to hide. If the community feels that they can truly trust what they see. Police officers work in public, they interact with the public, are given public funds and occasionally receive complaints from the public. And when complaints are filed and found to be true, then the public should have the right to know as there is for most other members of the public. If a lawyer commits misconduct you can look that up. If a doctor commits misconduct, you can find that out. If you are arrested, not convicted, just arrested, we can all find out what happened. But if that same police officer that arrested you commits misconduct and it is sustained, not just alleged but sustained, without this bill, you will never know. It will be held secret.
Moreover, her chief contention was that the Copley decision goes too far in protecting the privacy of police officers who have had sustained complaints against them.

Post-Copley the pendulum has swung so far that it has completely toppled the balance of privacy and the public's right to know. And to be clear I would say that there is no privacy interest in sustained misconduct by a public employee including police officers.

As we mentioned last week, various police officer associations have strongly come out against this bill, to the point where they have made threats against the legislation that if the legislature ends up passing this bill, they will work to defeat the Term Limits reform initiative that will be on the February ballot. Romero addressed these threats and the charge that this bill is anti-law enforcement.
Peace officers are not just private citizens doing private things, they are public servants, using public authority to potentially use lethal force on the public to enforce the public's law, our law. This bill is looking to restore a balance between privacy and a public's right to know passed the Senate with bipartisan support despite the intense lobbying against it mainly by police organizations. And it passed even despite a political threat. But this bill is not anti-law enforcement. This bill is supported by law enforcement. The national black police officers association, the Los Angeles, Oakland, and East Palo Alto and Newark Police Chiefs. And the San Francisco Sheriff as well. It is supported by elected officials throughout California, who understand that we never should be afraid of sunshine in government.
There was also testimony from the Newark Police Chief, who is strongly in favor of civilian review and has suggested that police should have nothing to fear from public scrutiny. In fact, this bill would restore public trust with the police that will make their job easier rather than more difficult.

The most compelling testimony came from two individuals who had suffered personally from police misconduct. First, Dolores Huerta of the United Farm Workers who told of her personal experience of being beaten in San Francisco with a baton to the point where it ruptured her spleen in 1988. The officer was the brother of the police chief and there were not police oversight laws in place. The other woman spoke in tears of a recent tragedy where her daughter lost her life as the police violated a number of procedures during the course of a chase.

The ACLU had organized many citizens coming to this meeting, and perhaps 50 or more showed up in support of the bill, however, this effort was overshadowed by the overwhelming showing of the various peace officers groups from across the state. The police officers argued that this bill would imperil their safety and their family's safety.

In the end, the chair Jose Solorio, expressed his support in the concept of this legislation, but his concerns about some of the specifics of this bill. He asked Senator Romero if she wanted a vote, and she said that she did and implored the committee to act on this legislation. In a committee of four Democrats and two Republicans, not one Democrat stood up to make a motion for this legislation that had already passed the State Senate by a 22-11 margin. Not one.

A very angry Senate Majority Leader left the room stating: "Did someone turn out the lights in this room?"

Mark Schlossberg, Police Practices Policy Director of the ACLU-NC, who had helped to craft this legislation stated afterwards:
“By not even allowing a vote on this important bill, the Assembly Public Safety Committee has given the police unions exactly what they want: a cloak of secrecy over police misconduct and a lack of public accountability... By remaining silent our elected officials favored police secrecy over the public interest.”
It was a sad and demoralizing experience yesterday. This was a committee made up of Democrats and not one of them had the courage to act. I have gained a large measure of respect for the work of Gloria Romero who was brilliant in her presentation and dynamic as a speaker as she fought for social justice against what turned out to be indifferent colleagues in the other house of the California legislature. It was obvious that the members of this committee caved in to the intimidation tactics of the police associations.

This lack of action by the California State Assembly puts this legislation in doubt at least for 2008. This means that it will not be at least for another year before the legislature can correct the Copley decision, that weakened severely already very weak oversight laws in California.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting