Transparency is essential for trust in law enforcement

September 7, 2018

In the 1970s, Los Angeles police officers were furious that past complaints against them increasingly were making their way into court cases. So LAPD officials did something radical: They took more than four tons of personnel records dating to the 1940s and shredded them.

That decision resulted in the dismissal of more than 100 criminal cases involving officers accused of wrongdoing whose records had been purged, sparking public outrage.

The Legislature responded by passing a law that ensured officer discipline records would be preserved — but also made it nearly impossible for anyone to learn about them. The action, driven by police unions, began a decades-long process that has made California the strictest state in the nation when it comes to protecting police confidentiality.

That could change in the next few weeks, with lawmakers in Sacramento considering a landmark effort to increase disclosure.

Repeated efforts to open access to misconduct records have run into aggressive opposition from the unions, one of the most powerful political forces in the Capitol and city halls around the state. Lawmakers who championed transparency faced threats of union opposition at election time.

Police unions repeatedly have argued that California’s confidentiality rules protect officer safety and privacy — and prevent cops’ names from being dragged through the mud.

But this year, a group of California legislators is confronting police unions in ways once unthinkable. They argue the organizations are out of touch with public sentiment over how officers use force and interact with communities of color. The shift comes amid the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform movements.

“It’s hard to build trust … when police keep secret how they respond to killing members of the public and hide serious misconduct,” said Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the American Civil Liberties Union of California.

The latest proposal to make some misconduct records public faces key decisions in the Legislature this month, and while passage is far from assured, some union leaders privately are conceding that a measure of disclosure might be inevitable.

No other state has locked away citizen complaints and internal investigation files like California. Records of misconduct that results in suspensions and other significant discipline are public in 21 states, including Minnesota. Only California, Delaware and New York have specially enshrined confidentiality laws that single out police disciplinary files. California is alone in denying prosecutors direct access to the records.

Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher (D-San Diego), who worked closely with police unions as a labor leader before being elected in 2013, heads the fiscal committee that will consider the legislation. Gonzalez Fletcher said she strongly supports protecting officers’ privacy. But she agrees that the conversation surrounding policing issues has changed.

In her district, which encompasses southern San Diego and stretches to the Mexican border, she’s noticed more complaints from Latino residents that police are treating them unfairly.

“Transparency is necessary,” Gonzalez Fletcher said. “We have to do something in order for communities like mine to gain trust in police again.”

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