SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Aiming to pry open law enforcement records, California lawmakers on Wednesday passed a measure that would improve public access to information about officers guilty of wrongdoing and those involved in police shootings.
Proponents coined Senate Bill 1421 as a transparency measure that would uncloak details about officers who shoot suspects, falsify evidence or commit sexual assault. The proposal comes amid heightened public angst regarding recent fatal police shootings in California.
California has some of the strictest laws protecting law enforcement personnel records and prohibits police departments from sharing disciplinary records of officers who are guilty of or have been accused of serious misconduct.
The American Civil Liberties Union sponsored the bill, calling it a “long overdue” update to California’s outdated police transparency laws. The group noted 27 other states already make some form of officer records available to the public.
“For years, California law has shrouded police misconduct and use of force in unnecessary secrecy, leaving communities desperate for answers about what really happened in police shootings and completely in the dark about cases of serious police misconduct,” said ACLU of California policy director Peter Bibring in a statement.
The Democratic-controlled state Senate cleared the bill in a 25-11 vote, with one Republican voting in favor. The measure must be approved by the Assembly and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown before becoming law.
Republican state Sen. John Moorlach agreed with proponents that the public needs better access to police records. He speculated journalists or investigators may have been able to identify the recently arrested former cop accused of being the Golden State Killer had they been allowed to view his personnel records.
The suspect in the high-profile murder case, Joseph James DeAngelo, was fired by the Auburn Police Department in the 1970s after being charged with shoplifting dog repellent and a hammer from a Sacramento hardware store. DeAngelo’s minor crimes occurred during a stretch of brutal rapes and murders in the Sacramento area.
“We need more disclosure, colleagues,” Moorlach said on the Senate floor. “This code of silence has gone on for too long.”
In a fiery testimony, state Sen. Steven Bradford said the bill is needed to expose law enforcement’s “bad actors.” The Los Angeles Democrat and California Legislative Black Caucus member said officers should be treated the same as other professions.
“For some reason there is a double standard, there is a blue code,” Bradford said. “Not until we open ourselves up, remove the blinders of our biases and realize that [officers] are human beings and they should be held to the same accountability as everybody else, will we ever really make our community safer.”
The bill by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, would allow access to records of officers involved in serious use-of-force investigations such as fatal shootings and those guilty of sexual assault and tampering with evidence. It has been amended to allow law enforcement to delay the release of records when there is still an active investigation or if there is a clear danger to an officer.
The names of officers cleared of misconduct would still be protected under SB 1421.
Skinner said she is open to discussing further changes to her bill with law enforcement as it moves through the Assembly.
Opponents contend peace officers have a unique and dangerous job and that their personnel records should remain closed. The California State Sheriffs’ Association, California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys oppose the bill, according to the bill’s legislative analysis.
Republican state Sen. Jeff Stone said SB 1421 would invade officers’ privacy and open them up to false allegations.
“This will ultimately only lead to unnecessary accusations, attacks potentially on police officers and a general degradation of law enforcement response to criminal activity,” Stone said.
Also on Wednesday, the state Senate passed Senate Bill 1449, the rape kit testing legislation introduced by state Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino. Leyva’s bill would require California law enforcement agencies and forensic laboratories to test and analyze newly collected rape kit evidence in a timely manner. In order to prevent a backlog, newly collected rape kits would be required to be submitted within 20 days and tested no later than 120 days after receipt.
Backlogs of untested rape kits came to light in a 2014 state audit which found that fewer than half of rape kits are tested and analyzed. But some police departments have questioned whether testing all rape kits is a good use of limited resources.
The Department of Justice recommends all rape kits should be submitted to crime labs for DNA analysis.
While SB 1449 made its way through the state Senate last week, a proposed funding mechanism to allocate $2 million from the state’s general fund to help law enforcement comply with the requirement was removed.
Brown has historically vetoed bills without funding mechanisms written into them.
CNS reporter Bianca Bruno contributed to this report.