EDITORIAL: Time to push for access

California is much too secretive with law enforcement records.

FresnoMarch 21, 2014 

Powerful police unions and law enforcement advocates have made it too difficult to hold officers and departments accountable.


Due to the power of police unions, virtually no information about police officers, from disciplinary records to promotions, is available to their employers: the public. This should change.

The wall of secrecy around police officer data was years in the making, starting with the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, signed into law in 1978. That law virtually obliterated the ability of the public to find out anything about a police officer -- civilian complaints, disciplinary actions and even promotions.

Since then, powerful police unions and law enforcement advocates have continued to expand the veil of secrecy.

It's time to push back. As The Sacramento Bee's Jim Miller reported in a story on Monday, California is one of the most secretive states in the nation when it comes to law enforcement records. The public isn't even allowed to find out whether the officers it employs to enforce the rules are breaking them.

An officer's street address and family details should not be easily accessible to the world. We don't want to live in a country where officers working on gang or drug crime can easily be targeted by the bad guys.

However, that legitimate concern has provided cover for the ridiculous expansion of privacy so that even on-the-job misconduct and crimes committed aren't made public. That's an unacceptable amount of privacy for a public employee, especially when that person has the authority to use a firearm.

This is Sunshine Week, the time of year where the media focus on egregious examples of government secrecy. This is one of them. But good luck reversing it; state or local officials don't have the stomach for political battles with law enforcement.

"The only thing that has a chance of changing this sort of standoff would be a citizen's ballot amendment, and that's not easy to do with law enforcement resistance," said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, which advocates for freedom of information among other benefits to the public.

What could be more effective, Francke suggests, is replacing one word in Government Code Section 832.7. The law says that police departments or law enforcement agencies "may disseminate data regarding the number, type, or disposition of complaints (sustained, not sustained, exonerated, or unfounded) made against its officers if that information is in a form which does not identify the individuals involved."

Change that "may" to a "must" and the result would be the collection of data that, while in no way endangering officers, would build a public view of possible problems.

Even if the Legislature is unwilling to approve such a minor change, cities could act by compelling their police departments to "voluntarily" report this data.

With great power comes great responsibility, and with great responsibility comes great accountability. Or, at least, it should.

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