Nearing the end of his governorship and likely the finale of his legendary political career, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law two bills that dial back California’s strict laws regarding police misconduct. With his signature, California joins every other state in the union in permitting access to certain investigatory records.
Ironically, it was Brown who signed those original strict confidentiality laws back in 1978, during his initial term as governor. We do have to give him some credit for recognizing his mistakes and rectifying them. Of course, now that he’s about to retire, re-election and the support of police unions is no longer a consideration.
The public will now have access to police department internal investigations of shootings, accusations of sexual assault by law enforcement personnel and other misconduct, courtesy of Senate Bill 1421. The other bill signed by Brown on September 30, Assembly Bill 748, regulates police body cameras.
Moving forward, police departments must release video or audio of “serious” misconduct within 45 days of the occurrence. There is an exception if releasing the material might compromise an active investigation. As of January 1, 2019, the open records law goes into effect, but the body camera law does not become effective until July 1.
Death by Cop
Last year alone, police killed 172 civilians, almost all of whom died from gunshot wounds. Two police officers were also killed in 2017. In 2016, the number was 157 civilians killed and five police officers dying in the line of the duty. Approximately 90 percent of the victims were male, and 44 percent were Latino, 30 percent were white and 19 percent African-American.
Roughly 60 percent of the police officers involved were white, 33 percent Latino, five percent Asian, and four percent African-American. Public outcry over police shootings is intense, but under California law, obtaining access to police records was virtually impossible, with even prosecutors prevented from viewing them. The new bills will change that, to some degree.
Police Witness Credibility
There’s another critical aspect of the new laws. Previously, it was very challenging to know whether a police witness had a history of misconduct. The state’s confidentiality laws kept such misconduct secret. One San Francisco public defender called the new regulations “revolutionary.”
It is probable that new information about police witnesses and histories of misconduct will lead to the dismissal of many convictions. Those unfairly convicted will finally receive a fair hearing.
In Contra Costa County alone during the past two years, 19 convictions were tossed out after a police lieutenant told a judge that two police officer witnesses were facing internal investigations, presumably for misconduct.
With the new bills, prosecutors and judges won’t have to wait for the rare occasion when a police officer determines that fellow officers have no business serving as witnesses.
Public Opinion Shifts
California’s strict confidentiality laws have been in place for 40 years. Police unions opposed the new bills, as they have similar bills put forward in the past. Their arguments included that law enforcement personnel and their families would face the risk of personal harm if misconduct information were available.
What changed so that legislators supported these laws? Primarily, it was public opinion, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, and media attention on the shooting of unarmed civilians undoubtedly contributed to this shift. Legislators always have one finger in the wind, and they could sense from what direction the wind was coming on the police misconduct issues.