A pitched battle over expanding California’s landmark police transparency law will play out in Sacramento on Thursday as lawmakers decide whether Californians have a right to know more about incidents where police face accusations of using excessive force or engaging in discriminatory behavior.
The new bill faces a crucial vote this week before the Assembly Appropriations Committee, where law enforcement groups are seeking to diminish its reach into once-private internal records.
Senate Bill 16, extends upon legislation passed by State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, in 2018, which for the first time opened records involving officers whose use of force resulted in “death or great bodily injury”. The new bill goes further by making public additional police disciplinary records, including those related to “sustained” allegations of discrimination, unlawful arrests or aiding fellow officers to cover up incidents of excessive force.
It is scheduled for a vote in the Annual Appropriations on Thursday and a full floor vote by the beginning of September.
That legislation has already resulted in new insights into police abuses in the Bay Area and across the state, even though many police agencies continue to fight the disclosure requirements. In Bakersfield, Attorney General Rob Bonta announced on Wednesday a judgment to improve policing practices. Bonta’s office said the investigation of the Bakersfield Police Department “was informed by complaints made by individuals and community organizations, as well as by media reports, which alleged the use of excessive force and other serious misconduct.”
The new bill proposes a lower threshold for documents alleging excessive use of force by officers. Records about complaints of violent abuse would become releasable even if there was no official finding against an officer.
Police and county and city organizations — including police unions — have led opposition to the bill, just as they fought Skinner’s earlier transparency efforts. The new legislation is supported by a large coalition of criminal justice reform, free speech, media groups, organized labor and grassroots organizations. Some individual cities and counties, including Oakland and Los Angeles County, also support the bill.
As a compromise, Skinner said she agreed to push back response deadlines for requests of archived police documents for a year, to allay law enforcement groups’ concerns that information requests would be too onerous. Requests for current documents covered by the law will be required to be produced within 45 days.
“Rather than having the cities or the agencies be able to kill the bill because of this burden, we said look, we’ll help you out with your burden, while we maintain the integrity of the public’s right to know about these incidents,” Skinner said.
The League of California Cities said it opposed the bill because it would mandate disclosure of “police personnel records for all allegations of unreasonable or excessive use of force regardless of whether the officer was exonerated or if a complaint was not sustained.” The group said such disclosures would damage trust between police agencies and their communities.
A coalition of police agencies, including the Los Angeles Protective League and the San Francisco Police Officers Association, said in an open letter to Skinner that the bill will require release of “unfounded, unsubstantiated complaints to the public.”
“We cannot fathom why false information should be released and amplified and further do not understand how this is supposed to improve the quality of policing in California,” the coalition wrote.
Skinner defended the bill as an essential response to public outcry in the wake of police abuse cases over the past several years, including the 2020 murder of George Floyd by former police officer Derek Chauvin in Minneapolis.
“What SB 16 does is recognize that we have a right to know if there are officers who have a pattern of using force, excessive force,” she said. “SB 16 allows us access to excessive force records, beyond just discharging of a weapon. It also lets us know if there’s an officer as a pattern of of improper or unlawful conduct, like improper arrests and searches.
“It also lets us know if there’s an officer who has a pattern of discriminatory behavior and biased behavior, whether that’s towards a mentally ill person, LGBTQ people or people of color,” Skinner said.
Despite resistance among police groups, Skinner said she expected SB 16 to pass through its committee vote Thursday without significant amendments. It it passes, the bill will go to the California Senate for a final vote and referral to the Governor’s Office by Sept. 10.