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Police Secrecy Rules: CA Politicians Cave to Cop Union Pressure

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Last Tuesday, in a shameful display of political cowardice, an important police accountability bill was stalled in committee.

The bill, SB 1019 (Romero, D-Los Angeles) would have overturned a State Supreme Court decision in Copley Press that resulted in the closure of public hearings on citizen complaints of police misconduct. It would also have restored very limited public access to the disciplinary records of cops who are found to have violated the law and abused the public trust.

As a result of Copley Press, officers who abuse their powers and violate people's civil rights are now protected by a cloak of secrecy. The California Supreme Court held that under State law, the "privacy rights" of abusive officers are more important than the public's right to know. The shameful truth is that California's policy of secrecy about police conduct is now one of the most restrictive in the country.

Why couldn't Senator Romero, who represents parts of the City of Los Angeles, get her relatively modest bill out of the Assembly Public Safety Committee?

Part of the reason lies in the tactics of the police unions who, prior to an earlier vote in the senate threatened to torpedo term limit reform, and repeated their mantra that allowing greater openness and transparency would somehow endanger officer safety and compromise the security of police operations.

There is no evidence to support this allegation, either in California or in any of the thirty-plus states that allow public hearings on citizen complaints. In 30-plus years of open hearings pre-Copley Press in California, there is not one single instance of a single officer being physically harmed as a result of such information being released.

In fact, the Copley Press decision had nothing to do with officer safety or operational security. The Court's 42-page opinion does not once mention either of these issues. Nor do the extensive briefs and pleadings of the plaintiff police unions to the Court.

Finally, SB 1019 contains specific provisions that allow for records to be kept confidential if a police chief or sheriff certifies that their release is likely to compromise officer safety or operational security. The fact that the police unions have rejected this provision clearly shows that their safety and security concerns are completely bogus.

Despite repeated invitations by Senator Romero, they have not proposed a single amendment of their own to address these supposedly crucial issues. The truth is that the police unions are not interested in public accountability plus protection. They are not interested in public accountability at all. Period. End of discussion.

It is important to note, however, that the national black officers' union, the Black Police Association, has endorsed SB 1019. It is reasonable to assume that these officers have no interest in putting officer safety or operational security at risk. They do, however, know all about racism and its insidious effects.

It is no accident that in California, the jurisdictions that have opted to establish open and public mechanisms of citizen oversight are all major urban centers with large minority populations. There is overwhelming evidence that these are the communities most affected by officer misconduct and, for that reason, the most distrustful of police.

Recently released statistics by the U.S. Department of Justice show that in casual encounters with the police, African American and Hispanic citizens are almost three times more likely than whites to be subjected to a search. In the same encounters, force is used against African Americans almost four times more frequently than against whites. The use of force against Hispanics is more than twice as frequent as against whites.

The experience of Oakland, where the Ella Baker Center is headquartered, confirms these findings. In 2006, seventy-eight percent of complaints filed with the Oakland Citizens' Police Review Board were by ethnic minority--mainly African American--complainants.

Under Copley Press, these citizens are deprived of the right to demand public accountability and adjudication of their grievances at an open hearing, even though this City formerly granted them this right. This enforced secrecy will inevitably cause severe damage to public confidence, especially in the communities most affected, where trust in the City's police is at its most fragile. I have no doubt that the insidious effects of police secrecy will have similar effects in Los Angeles and California's other major cities.

There has recently been much talk in California about the need for community policing. The necessary foundation of a community policing effort is public trust. If there is no public accountability, that basis of trust is undermined.

For that reason, SB 1019 is endorsed by a growing number of respected figures and organizations within the law enforcement community. These include Chief William Bratton of the Los Angeles Police Department, San Francisco County Sheriff Michael Hennessy, City of Newark Police Chief Ray Samuels, and the National Black Police Association.

As observed by Chief Samuels in his letter endorsing SB 1019, "[t]he development and maintenance of the public's trust is essential to the effective operations of a law enforcement agency. The transparency allowed under this legislation in the adjudication of administrative complaints against police officers is fundamental to that effort."

But for reasons of perceived political self-interest, California's lawmakers are refusing to hear this message.

The main reason why Senator Romero's bill has been blocked is that California's political leaders have failed to commit their support to this bill or to advocate for its passage. Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa did submit a letter of support early on in the process, but he has not publicly advocated for its passage out of committee. He declined an invitation to testify in support of the bill at Tuesday's crucial hearing.

The greatest disappointment of all has been the abject failure of leadership by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez. Not only did Nunez fail to support and advocate for the bill, he actually helped to engineer its defeat--whether unwittingly or otherwise--by neglecting to fill a critical seat on the committee that blocked it. As Speaker Nunez was certainly aware, that seat was previously held by a key supporter and co-author of the bill.

Mayor Villaraigosa and Speaker Nunez both publicly denounced the May 1 police melee at MacArthur Park in which dozens of people were injured, but when the cameras were gone and there was a real chance to advance police accountability, the Mayor remained silent and the Speaker sided with the police unions.

Despite this setback, the bill can still be moved. We need to let Speaker Nunez know that he will be held accountable if SB 1019 fails and that the next time there is a significant incident of police misconduct, and the public is kept in the dark, he will bear a significant portion of the blame.

You can tell Fabian Nunez to support the public interest over the police secrecy lobby by faxing his office <> or calling him at 916-319-2046.