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Californians Will Finally Get Access to Records About Police Misconduct

• https://reason.com

Gov. Jerry Brown signs bills dramatically increasing transparency about law enforcement behavior.

For decades, California has kept police misconduct records exempt from public records requests, denying citizens (and even prosecutors and defense attorneys in court cases) easy access to information about law enforcement behavior.

Now that secrecy is coming to an end. This afternoon Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law S.B. 1421, sponsored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D–Berkeley). S.B. 1421 changes the rules to call for the release of police conduct (and misconduct) records in certain situations: if the officer discharged his or her gun in an incident; if the officer was involved in an incident that led to death or great bodily injury; if the officer had been found to have engaged in sexual assault with a member of the public (this includes any sexual act while on duty); and if the officer had been found to have engaged in dishonest practices, such as committing perjury, falsifying reports, or destroying or concealing evidence.

Today was the last day for Brown to sign or veto bills passed during the 2018 legislative season. He had been keeping mum about whether he'd sign on to this reform. He was responsible for signing the original bill back in 1978 that exempted police conduct reports from public view. What spooled out from that initial bill was an environment where citizens simply were not able to find out if an officer involved in a violent or otherwise controversial confrontation had a history of disciplinary problems. Even prosecutors and defense attorneys had to beg judges for information from the conduct records of officers put on the stand as witnesses.

This legislation represents a huge shift in the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the public in California. Police unions have fought for years to keep officers' bad conduct out of the public eye. They've been succeeding for a long time. This change will bolster pushes for transparency in other states (such as New York) that similarly conceal bad cop behavior from the public.

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