Legal wrangling must not undo the public good of the police-records law

When California’s Senate Bill 1421 became law on Jan. 1, it opened up the public’s right to see reports of whenever a law officer shoots at a suspect, uses force that either kills someone or causes great injury, commits sexual assault or lies in the course of an investigation.

The measure is groundbreaking in California, which is one of just three states that for decades has had laws protecting the confidentiality of such records, effectively shielding law officers’ actions from public scrutiny. In today’s digital age, police behavior is chronicled nearly every moment by someone, somewhere, on a mobile phone. Releasing records as called for under the bill is a necessary and worthwhile step toward greater transparency and public understanding of the difficult job law officers have to do.

As straightforward as the law reads, it has gotten bogged down in legal wrangling. While understandable, the skirmishes are wrong, and will ultimately be shown that way. The courts need to uphold the law without further delay.

The bill did not specify whether such records pertained only to cases after Jan. 1; indeed, it did not include any specific time reference. That has caused confusion, and unions representing law enforcement groups around the state sued to stop implementation of Senate Bill 1421, arguing it unfairly would make public the confidential reports from before Jan. 1.

One of those cases is in Fresno County. The local Deputy Sheriff’s Association sued the county to keep it from releasing personnel records that existed before Jan. 1. Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Y. Hamilton ordered the county not to release any records without first arguing for such in his court. He also told the county not to apply SB 1421 to any cases that occurred before New Year’s Day.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer and Sheriff Margaret Mims are taking a wait-and-see approach to complying with the law, preferring to let the local case and others in the state play out. Both support the transparency purpose behind the bill, but say they must also respect the privacy rights their personnel have worked under. Dyer and Mims promise to follow the law should it be upheld once an ultimate legal decision is reached.

Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer updates the media on a fatal hit and run that took place on Friant Road at Copper River Drive Feb. 22, 2019 in Fresno. The suspect shown in the background is Matthew Hiram Chenot. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA ezamora@fresnobee.com

Senate Bill 1421’s author, Democrat Nancy Skinner of Oakland, has clarified what records the measure covers. “Unless the state Supreme Court issues an injunction, which it has chosen not to do, SB 1421 is the law and covers pre-2019 records as the Legislature intended,” she said last month.

And the California News Publishers Association (of which The Bee is a member) points out that police officer and sheriff’s deputy unions, as well as police chiefs and sheriffs statewide, had their chance to present their concerns as SB 1421 was being heard in the Legislature. That the bill was passed and signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown indicates the lawmakers did not share the worries that the unions and law enforcement leaders are now presenting.

Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims during a press conference last year in Fresno. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA Fresno Bee file

One of the unions that sued was a police officers association in Los Angeles. A Superior Court judge there, Mitchell L. Beckloff, addressed the Jan. 1 date issue in ruling against the union: “The unambiguous language (in the bill) demonstrates the operation of SB 1421 has nothing to do with the date on which a personnel record was created — it applies to all records.”

On Wednesday the state Supreme Court upheld Beckloff’s ruling and closed the Los Angeles case. And the high court on Jan. 2 turned away a challenge to the law filed by San Bernardino County deputies in December to keep the measure from taking effect.

Why is the measure important? For one thing, anyone who feels wronged by an officer in the categories covered by SB 1421 can now get records that will help in a court case. Such accountability is important because police work for the public. Before Skinner’s bill was approved, plaintiffs usually had to sue to get such records, and not everyone could afford a legal challenge.

Second, law agencies earn goodwill by being transparent, a point not lost on Dyer. “Trust from the community requires transparency. It requires that they know not only what we do, but how we do it, and that when an employee does something wrong, we hold them accountable.”

Producing records from a shooting incident, for example, can show how the officer and department did things properly and by the book, which inspires public confidence.

“A lot of times, law enforcement did not do anything wrong,” notes Warren Paboojian, a top Fresno civil attorney who has brought suits against Fresno PD. “But when information is withheld, suspicion arises. It is better to get it out in the open.”

The Fresno case will come back for a hearing in September. Here’s hoping a higher court can clear up the legal wrangling before then, and SB 1421 can truly take its place as law to benefit the public’s right to know.