On the eve of a crucial legislative committee decision on bills that would shed light for the first time on complaints and investigations into alleged police violence and sexual assaults—and on the related standards, policies and practices adopted by each peace officer employing agency—several enlightening resources exist for understanding how and why such information is now kept so secret:

  • a typically jocular but accurate introduction to the issue from a October 2, 2016 “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” program;
  • today’s brisk briefing from Vanity Fair online focusing on the central role of police officer unions; and
  • this week’s focused examination of California’s extreme police secrecy and the Legislature’s deferential history, by the Los Angeles Times.

The Assembly Appropriations Committee will tomorrow decide whether or not to allow the most successful reform bills to date to proceed to the Assembly Floor—or to take no action and thereby effectively kill them.

SB 1421 by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would require disclosure of the following as subject to the California Public Records Act, in the words of the Legislative Counsel’s Digest, including:

certain peace officer or custodial officer personnel records and records relating to specified incidents, complaints, and investigations involving peace officers and custodial officers . . .(including) the framing allegation or complaint, any facts or evidence collected or considered, and any findings or recommended findings, discipline, or corrective action taken.

Disclosable would be allegations, investigations and findings concerning:

• shots fired or tasers triggered at a person;
• a battering weapon blow to a person’s head or neck; and
• any other use of force resulting in death or serious bodily injury.

The bill would require records so disclosed to be redacted only to remove home contact, family and medical information,
to preserve the anonymity of complainants and witnesses, or “where there is a specific, particularized reason to believe that disclosure would pose a significant danger to the physical safety of the peace officer, custodial officer, or others.”

SB 978 by Senator Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) would require the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, as well as all local law enforcement agencies, to “conspicuously post on their Internet Web sites all current standards, policies, practices, operating procedures, and education and training materials that would otherwise be available to the public if a request was made pursuant to the California Public Records Act.”

The bill, which would take effect in January 2020, would thus provide public insight into the rules of engagement whose secrecy so often leaves citizens baffled when a department concludes that a particularly violent encounter was “within policy.”