A new law took effect Jan. 1, requiring that police departments release records involving disciplinary actions and critical events faster and more transparently, records some departments never released at all in the past.
Police Chief John Perez discussed the issue in an interview with Pasadena Now and said balance between the public’s right to know and a disciplined officer’s right to privacy must be struck.
Perez explained that the law applies to records related to shootings, use of force, serious injury, internal affairs investigations sustained for dishonesty, or incidents where an officer committed a sexual offense on duty.
“The law is clear on that.” said Perez, “The question for us is, how far back is the period going to be? Is it 2019? Or going back five years? 10 years, 15 years? And that’s where the debate is at in court and we see some [police] agencies in the area shredding some of their documents, so it’s all moving very quickly.”
The California Supreme Court, on June 2, refused to rule on a request of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Employees’ Benefit Association to determine whether or not the law applies to records retroactively.
The lawsuit sought to bypass the normal run through the Superior and Appeals courts, but did not find a sympathetic ear. The Supreme Court also refused to issue an injunction delaying enforcement of the law until the issue gets a full legal review, as requested by the union representing San Bernardino sheriffs.
The Pasadena Police Officers Association (PPOA), the union representing city cops, did not respond to multiple queries regarding its position on the new law, known as SB 1421 during its legislative life.
“We need the law,” said Kris Ockershauser, American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “I’m sure our PPOA is supportive of various police unions’ operations trying to destroy what SB 1421 is doing. Although I don’t think they’ve come out publicly, they’re generally anti-reform in almost any of the incidents that we’ve talked about with them or the city.”
Perez said he foresees an event whereby the request to keep a dashcam video of a shooting under wraps comes, not from the police, but from a victim’s family. “They will say this is enough,” opined Perez. “We don’t want you putting our son or daughter [out in public]. We know what happened on that video.”
SB 1421 was authored by State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley).
According to a Senate floor analysis of the bill, the California Supreme Court issued a decision in 2006, which held that the records from a police officer’s administrative disciplinary appeal of a sustained finding of misconduct was protected from public disclosure.
After the ruling, California became, the analysis noted, “one of the most secretive states in the nation in terms of openness when it comes to officer misconduct and uses of force. Moreover, interpretation of our statutes have carved out a unique confidentiality exception for law enforcement that does not exist for public employees, doctors and lawyers, whose records on misconduct and resulting discipline are public records.”