California bill opening police misconduct records to public passes Legislature

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Cesar Ruiz/File

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The types of police records open to public access could be expanded by California SB 1421 — penned by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley — which passed through the state Legislature on Friday and is heading to Gov. Jerry Brown for signing.

According to the bill’s text, it would add specific records regarding investigations or complaints involving officers to the list of records that are accessible through a California Public Records Act request. The Public Records Act outlines what types of government records can be accessed by the public and through what means.

Skinner said the bill covers records containing information that the public has the “most legitimate right to know” — police misconduct records. She also noted that, of all 50 states, California has the most secrecy surrounding public access to law-enforcement records.

“Investigations on use of force, such as shootings, and dishonesty related to either tampering with evidence or tampering with the witness … those activities are the things that the public really has the most legitimate right to know,” Skinner said. “It gives the ability to the public to hold an agency accountable.”

During a May 1 meeting, Berkeley City Council voted to pass an item supporting SB 1421. Mayor Jesse Arreguín also supports the bill, saying that it will increase transparency for police officers and is an “important step forward to lift the veil of secrecy.”

Councilmember Kate Harrison echoed this sentiment, emphasizing that a bill such as this one would increase police accountability.

“It’s a very limited number of cases that (this bill is) talking about, but in these really egregious cases, I think it’ll make a difference in our ability to have police accountability,” Harrison said. “It’s all about making sure that it’s an accountable system.”

Berkeley Police Department spokesperson Officer Byron White said BPD typically does not comment on bills still pending signatures, and that the bill must be passed into law to be interpreted as such.

The rise of police transparency in the public consciousness has been a success of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

Worthington also noted that Skinner’s bill isn’t the first to try widening the scope of publicly accessible records — in 2016, then-state senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, had tried to push a bill that would release certain police misconduct records to the public. Leno’s bill died in the California Senate Appropriations Committee later that year.

“These kinds of issues of police accountability, especially when there’s use of force, are very emotional to people,” Worthington said. “To some extent, the reason it’s possible to get this approved now is because … the Black Lives Matter movement has created a shift in the broader public consciousness.”

Contact Sakura Cannestra at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @SakuCannestra.