Legislation would loosen California’s airtight restrictions on publicizing police misconduct records and investigations into officer-involved shootings.
(TNS) - A line of law enforcement officers stood stoically as protesters confronted them, chanting a refrain that has become a fixture of Sacramento protests over the police killing of an unarmed African American man.
“We don’t need you, we don’t want you,” the protesters said. And one woman added a message that’s been at the heart of the protests: “We don’t trust you.”
State Sen. Nancy Skinner says she’s got a partial solution: legislation that would loosen California’s airtight restrictions on publicizing police misconduct records and investigations into officer-involved shootings. The Berkeley Democrat calls it a step toward building trust in police in some communities.
However, even in an overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature, passage of Skinner’s proposal is far from assured. Police groups have defeated similar legislation in the past, and they’re not yet on board with a measure that would still keep many disciplinary records under wraps.
For activists who want the two Sacramento police officers who shot Stephon Clark on March 18 to be charged with murder, there’s an obvious information gap tainting public perception about the case: Clark’s criminal history is public record, but almost nothing is known about the officers who shot him, including whether they have ever been disciplined for misconduct.
“Good policing requires the trust of the community,” Skinner said. “There has to be that cooperation. Without transparency there is a deep suspicion in many communities of law enforcement.”
Her bill, SB1421, would give the public access to police disciplinary records when an officer has been found to have committed sexual assault or lied on the job, including by falsifying reports or planting evidence. Investigations and reports related to an officer’s serious or deadly use of force would also be releasable.
Those records, and all other police disciplinary investigations, are now off-limits from public view because of an exemption in the state’s public records laws for police agencies. The only other public employees with similar protections are members of the Legislature, and even there, lawmakers are reviewing their policies and have released some substantiated sexual harassment complaints in recent months.
“California has some of the most strict laws about police records,” Skinner said. “Even hiring agencies can’t get these records.”
Police groups say shielding disciplinary records from public view is needed to protect officers’ safety.
“Our big concern is having a media frenzy around a case where a case is tried in the media before it goes to trial,” said Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California. With 70,000 members, it’s the largest police union in the nation.
Marvel said the union is “trying to find middle ground” with Skinner on her bill.
Mark Leno, a former state senator who is running for mayor in San Francisco, said the unrest in the state capital over the Clark shooting, along with other well-publicized police shootings nationally in recent years, could give Skinner’s bill the momentum that similar legislation he proposed never had.
Leno tried twice to require that all police misconduct records and complaints be made public. His last attempt, in 2016, died without a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Leno said that when labor groups that are major campaign donors, including the California Labor Federation and California School Employees Association, sided with police unions in opposing his bill, he quickly lost support from Democrats.
“It did not go very far,” Leno said. “The law enforcement lobby responded very severely at the time. Quite honestly, a lot has happened since then that I think underscores the need for reform and the need for Sen. Skinner’s bill all the more.”
As an assemblyman in 2007, Leno tried to pass a bill to open police officer records after the California Supreme Court ruled such disclosures were not public. That bill also died in committee.
“Law enforcement suggested that our bill would open up the personnel files of any officer and expose them and their families to great risk and danger,” Leno said. “That’s completely false.”
The California State Sheriffs’ Association and California Police Chiefs Association declined to comment on Skinner’s bill, saying they needed more time to review it. They and the Peace Officers Research Association of California were among more than 20 law enforcement groups that opposed Leno’s bills.
Marvel, the police union president, said he has concerns about Skinner’s bill, such as the timing of when investigations into use of force or reports of misconduct would be released. He said those records should not be made public until a case is fully adjudicated.
The union announced its opposition to another bill introduced last week that would toughen the standard for when police officers can shoot a suspect. It called the bill, AB931, “irresponsible legislation” that puts the public at risk.
That bill by Assembly members Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, and Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, was prompted by Clark’s death.
Clark was shot by two Sacramento police officers responding to reports of someone breaking into vehicles. The Police Department has not released the officers’ names. However, Melissa Nold, a Bay Area attorney who works with civil rights attorney John Burris, told The Chronicle that the officers were Jared Robinet, who has been on the force for four years, and Terrence Mercadal, who has two years with the department.
The officers chased Clark into the backyard of his grandmother’s house, where body-camera footage shows they yelled “gun!” just before opening fire. Clark was holding only a cell phone.
A private autopsy paid for by Clark’s family found he was shot eight times, with six of the bullets hitting him from behind. The Sacramento County coroner’s office has not released its findings.
Black Lives Matter Sacramento founder Tanya Faison said such shootings have contributed to fear and mistrust of police in minority communities. Skinner’s bill and the legislation on when shootings would be justified could “move the needle in the right direction,” she said.
“We need to see repercussions, and we need to see community oversight,” Faison said.
Melody Gutierrez is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @MelodyGutierrez
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