There are some who claim that police misconduct, if it does happen, is a rare occurrence, and even so, a few bad apples shouldn’t spoil the whole bunch. There are others who claim such misconduct is rampant, and dirty cops outnumber the good ones. The problem for both sides of the argument has been one of transparency: most police departments aren’t required to release investigations into officer abuse or misconduct or even the number of complaints they receive.
But last September, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a law loosening confidentiality rules regarding records of police misconduct. That law went into effect January 1, and according to local media, those records releases are already revealing major offenses.
Police Transparency Laws
California’s SB1421 removed privacy protections for any officer who commits sexual assault or lies on the job by planting evidence or falsifying reports, and made investigations and reports related to an officer’s serious or deadly use of force subject to the state’s Public Records Act. Brown also signed legislation making it easier for the public to obtain a police officer’s body camera footage, requiring department to release the footage or audio within 45 days of any critical incident.
Both bills were passed in response to a spate of officer shootings, including the killing of Stephon Clark. In that case, body cam footage shows officers shooting Clark 20 times, and then muting the audio recording, raising issues of when cops are permitted to mute or turn off body cameras.
Police Misconduct Revealed
In one of the first record releases under the new confidentiality rollbacks, documents revealed that a Burlingame police officer was fired after soliciting sex from a woman charged with a DUI. It turned out the same officer made similar proposals to two other women, one who engaged in a sexual affair with him. While the investigation’s findings were turned over to the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office, no criminal charges against the officer were ever filed.
There remains an open question as to how far back the open records law applies. According to the Mercury News, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge issued a last-minute injunction barring the LAPD from releasing records about disciplinary cases until a hearing can be conducted next month concerning the law’s retroactivity.
If you’re wondering how to obtain public records of police misconduct, contact a criminal law attorney for help.