PUBLIC INFORMATION -- The Herald in Monterey says in an editorial, "Before it's over, don't be
surprised if the apparent suspension of Seaside's police chief, a
deputy police chief and two police officers helps make the case for
loosening California's extreme restrictions on the public release of
information about investigations into alleged law enforcement
misconduct."

Already, the seeming inability of anyone in power in the Police
Department or elsewhere at City Hall to comment on the mystery suggests
it is time to put some common sense into the law, particularly as it
applies to a police department's top brass.

California's tight personnel rules — tighter than in several
other states — were largely meant to protect officers on the street
from undue public scrutiny or unfair criticism that could make it
harder for them to protect the public.

The thinking was that because they deal with such a wide
cross section of people, often in extremely stressful circumstances,
even some of the better performers in the police ranks could be
subjected to unfounded complaints and criticisms that could prove to be
career-killers if the information went into public circulation. If
officers had to worry constantly about every scrap of information in
their personnel files, they could become so cautious as to become
ineffective in the field.

Unfortunately, the rules on the books have been applied so
broadly, and not always correctly or appropriately, that many public
officials believe they cannot comment on investigations involving the conduct of police officers under any circumstances.

The rules and regulations, and even the court rulings that have
interpreted them, were meant primarily to protect the rank and file,
the officers who come in regular contact with the public and who are
most susceptible to trumped up allegations. The rules and regulations
were never meant to shield senior police officials from public scrutiny
— or to muzzle them when they or others have been falsely accused.

The result, as the current procedures involving Police Chief
Stephen Cercone and the others may show, ultimately could be unfair to
the officers and to the public. The public is left in the dark about
what is going on at arguably the most important and powerful
institution in the community. The officers, meanwhile, could be left
unable to defend themselves from the rumors that naturally follow any
sort of wholesale suspension. When public support for a police agency
is eroded, public safety can be compromised.

As soon as possible, those who do know what's going on in
Seaside should take it upon themselves to research the various rules
and regulations with an eye toward providing as much public information
as possible.

Contrary to common belief, the law does not provide a blanket
prohibition on releasing basic information about such inquiries.
Generally, it enables but does not require public agencies to wrap
themselves in secrecy, especially when it seems obvious that the public
interest, and perhaps even the officers' interests, would be better
served by a responsible amount of disclosure.

The editorial is inaccurate in two respects and naïve in a third.  First, the law does indeed "provide a blanket
prohibition on releasing basic information" about police misconduct.  The law does indeed "require public agencies to wrap
themselves in secrecy, especially when it seems obvious that the public
interest, and perhaps even the officers' interests, would be better
served by a responsible amount of disclosure."  There is no public interest counterbalance here to be taken into consideration.  The law flatly forbids public agencies from disclosing why a peace officer was disciplined or fired, or even that he or she was.

Second, The editorial states, as the rationale for enactment of this secrecy:

The thinking was that because they deal with
such a wide cross section of people, often in extremely stressful
circumstances, even some of the better performers in the police ranks
could be subjected to unfounded complaints and criticisms that could
prove to be career-killers if the information went into public
circulation.

This "thinking" has nothing to do with the law, but it's
the standard disinformation line from the police benefits lobby. The
law that exposes all public employees in California except peace
officers to disclosure of complaints and investigative findings serious
enough to warrant discipline does NOT expose them to public disclosure
of "unfounded complaints and criticisms." If police and other peace
officers were subject to the same discipline disclosure rules as other
public employees, only confirmed complaints serious enough to result in
discipline of a substantial kind would become public. In other words,
the police benefits lobby fights to protect a tiny minority of rogue or
reckless officers—those who don't deserve to wear the badge, much
less carry a lethal weapon—because they think that freedom from
accountability is a perk of the uniform.

The naïveté arises in the first sentence in the notion that the Seaside Police Department suspensions would possibly help "make the case for
loosening California's extreme restrictions on the public release of
information about investigations into alleged law enforcement
misconduct." If repeated videos of police violence in the state's urban center couldn't make the case for this reform, some mystery about what led to the Seaside discipline would never get close to doing so.