California has few laws on the books when it comes to how police departments respond to officer shootings.
There are major restrictions on what type of police information can be made public.
And measures or bills that would require the state to investigate police shootings have stalled in the Legislature in recent years.
The police shooting of Stephon Clark — an unarmed black man in Sacramento — has spurred separate investigations by the county district attorney, the city and the police’s internal-affairs division. All of these were triggered either by local officials or local laws.
Steven Connolly, a principal with the OIR Group, which provides outside evaluations of police, said the state lets local governments typically decide how to investigate police shootings. “There are a lot of different approaches to take, but in California there’s still a lot of discretion given to individual localities as far as how they want to handle it,” he said.
“Very little is available quite frankly,” is how Jim Ewert of the California News Publishers Association described public access to police officer records and information. “An officer that has engaged in excessive force or misconduct or the like — the public, and quite frankly other law enforcement agencies, won’t ever know.”
Those restrictions on officer personnel information extend back decades as part of legislation known as the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights. The CNPA co-sponsored a measure with the American Civil Liberties Union in 2016 that would have required more disclosure from law enforcement, but it stalled for the same reason other measures have failed:
Law enforcement groups have argued that enacting those policies will endanger or complicate the jobs of police.
“The California Peace Officers Bill of Rights is unusually protective of officer confidentiality and privacy and those kinds of things,” Connolly said.
Bit Connolly said there’s a balance. “There’s a public interest in knowing certain things and trying to have as much information as possible,” he said, “and that has to be weighed against the privacy rights of the officers and the dynamics of the job that the state has recognized are unique.”
The investigation into the police shooting of Clark could take several months, or longer, according to city officials.