By Nick Cahill
SACRAMENTO – Shining light on fatal shootings and police misconduct, California Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday signed two bills that expand public access to officers’ personnel records and require timely release of recordings of police shootings.
Activists behind the reforms painted the bills’ passage as a landmark victory for open government groups and key in rebuilding Californians’ trust in law enforcement. Lawmakers narrowly passed the measures last month despite fierce opposition from law enforcement groups which said the bills could threaten investigations and jeopardize officers’ privacy.
The American Civil Liberties Union of California, one the bills’ main sponsors, hopes the reforms will raise awareness of “systemic problems with policing that remain rooted in oppression and racism.”
“There is no doubt these two bills will significantly transform policing in California and help address the current crisis in policing which has led to the deaths of far too many people – largely in black and brown communities,” said ACLU of California director of police practices Peter Bibring.
Senate Bill 1421 gives journalists and residents access via the California Public Records Act to officer misconduct cases involving shootings, sexual misconduct and falsified evidence.
The California News Publishers Association co-sponsored the bill by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, saying it will finally give the press the ability to “fully investigate the activity of powerful public institutions.”
“Recent events, like the death of Stephon Clark in Sacramento, and those seared into California’s history, like the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, underscore the immense public concern related to police and community interactions,” the CNPA wrote in support of SB 1421.
The California Association of Highway Patrolmen and the Peace Officers Research Association of California countered that under SB 1421, officers might be “hesitant” to react to incidents out of fear of having their identities disclosed later on. Law enforcement groups claim the transparency bill could also lead to an increase of costly civil lawsuits and habeas corpus petitions.
“Criminals previously arrested or investigated by an officer who is the subject of misconduct allegations would inundate the court system and render the court process confusing and unreliable,” the groups warned to an Assembly policy committee.
Passed in the Assembly with just a single Republican vote, Assembly Bill 748 requires agencies to release police camera videos involving fatal shootings and other “critical incidents” within 45 days. Supporters believe the law will prevent police departments from withholding and stalling the release of footage showing officer misconduct and abuses of power.
Assemblyman Phil Ting’s measure – modeled after the Los Angeles Police Department’s video release policy – defines a “critical incident” as one involving an officer’s use of force or a violation of department policy by an officer. He says AB 748 is “necessary to boost confidence and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Brown, who acted on more than 180 bills over the weekend, did not include a signing message on either bill.
Along with the police bills, Brown approved a variety of criminal justice reforms including a bill meant to expedite the dismissal of hundreds of thousands of cannabis-related convictions.
Assembly Bill 1793 by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, requires the California Department of Justice to review all cannabis convictions that are eligible to be reduced or expunged as a result of voters approving marijuana for recreational use in 2016. Supporters say the measure gives victims of the drug war a “chance to reclaim their lives.”
“Long after paying their debt to society, people shouldn’t continue to face the collateral consequences, like being denied a job or housing, because they have an outdated conviction on their records,” Bonta said in a statement.
Some inmates could have their sentences slashed under another bill signed by the fourth-term governor. Assembly Bill 2942 allows prosecutors to review old cases and if warranted recommend a reduced sentence to the court. Currently only the state parole board can recommend a defendant’s sentence be shortened.
The measure is also meant to be a cost-saving tool, as California houses nearly 129,000 inmates and has the largest population of inmates serving long-term sentences in the nation.
“Just as new evidence can bring to light wrongful convictions, it can also show that there are sentences that are too long,” said Santa Clara County DA and AB 2942 sponsor Jeff Rosen in a statement.