OPEN GOVERNMENT -- "What's the point of subjecting complaints about the police to the
review of an independent civilian board," asks an editorial in the Redding Record Searchlight, "if the vast majority of
civiliansthat is, the general publiccan't learn the result?"
That is the quandary facing the north state ACLU chapter's call for a local police commission. The greatest benefit of such a panel: It would open a window onto
the rarely seen world of police departments' disciplinary proceedings.
But that window is nailed shut. A 2006 state Supreme Court ruling, Copley Press v. Superior Court,
essentially made secret the records and findings of police commissions.
In the last session, the Legislature considered and the Senate even
passed a bill to reverse that decision, but it ultimately died in the
Assembly under intense pressure from police unions.
It's hard to understand their opposition. Secrecy only breeds the
suspicion and complaints, common among those with a beef against an
officer, that internal discipline is a sham. More often than not,
greater openness would probably only polish departments' reputations as
the public saw the meritor lack thereofof complaints and that
officers faced punishment when appropriate.
But who's to say? Internal police discipline is confidential. The
independent body best able to review complaints is the county grand
jurywhose proceedings are also confidential unless it issues a
formal report. Under current law, a police commission would just add
one more layer of secret bureaucracyand, it bears mentioning, a
costly one for a department under chronic threat of layoffs.
Separately, the ACLU of Northern California has lobbied to overturn
the benighted Copley decision. And our state senator, Sam Aanestad, was
one of a handful of Republicans who crossed the law enforcement line
and voted for the bill that would have restored greater openness.
Here's a deal: How about Aanestad, approaching the final year of his
legislative career, sponsors a bill to make police commissions public
again? How about liberals and conservatives who share the quaint notion
that the public's business should be public work together to pass it? Then, when a police commission might have a purpose again, it'll be worth discussing whether Redding needs one.
Our view: The Legislature must first restore public access before a police commission would have a point.