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Police Records In California Rarely See Light Of Day, But Lawmakers Could Soon Change That

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

Demonstrators engage with police officers at a protest in downtown Sacramento over the death of Stephon Clark.

Andrew Nixon / Capital Public Radio

California lawmakers are poised to change the rules governing the release of police records as this year’s legislative session moves into its final weeks. The momentum for reform is due in part to the Sacramento police shooting earlier this year of Stephon Clark.

State Sen. Nancy Skinner’s bill would allow public access to police records in use-of-force cases, as well as sustained investigations into on-the-job dishonesty or sexual assault.

According to the Legislative Counsel’s digest of the bill, SB 1421, “this information includes, but is not limited to, the framing allegation or complaint, any facts or evidence collected or considered, and any findings or recommended findings, discipline, or corrective action taken.”

Skinner (D-Berkeley) hopes her measure will help communities increase trust in their law enforcement agencies.

Communities “have the perception that somehow there’s a cover-up. And, partly, they have that perception because they cannot get access to information about it,” she said. “The officers’ use of force may not be misconduct at all. But how do we know if we can’t see those investigatory records?”

Previous efforts to open up police records to the public have stalled amid law enforcement opposition. But this year is different.

“We are working daily towards a compromise,” CalChiefs’ lobbyist Jonathan Feldman wrote in a text message.

He added that “transparency and public disclosure of police records have to balance privacy and safety protections for exonerated officers.”

Skinner thinks that law enforcement’s “attitude toward rebuilding of public trust has changed,” but also said that her bill is “narrower” than past attempts at reform, because it would limit public access to just these high-profile incidents.

Even if some law enforcement groups drop their opposition, others will likely still fight the measure.

“Mandating that records be released no later than 18 months from the use of force could jeopardize the integrity of a pending investigation or criminal proceeding,” the California State Sheriffs’ Association wrote in a letter to the Legislature earlier this year.

Lawmakers are also debating another bill that would restrict police from using deadly force except when necessary to protect human life. That measure is seen as having a much tougher road to passage than the police records bill.

The Legislature must adjourn for the year by August 31.

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