Police officers are public employees. But virtually no information about them – from disciplinary records to promotions – is available to their employers. This should change.
The wall of secrecy around police officer data has taken years to construct, starting with the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, 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, the powerful police unions and law enforcement advocates have pushed successfully to expand the veil of secrecy.
It’s time to push back.
As The Sacramento Bee’s Jim Miller reported, California is one of the most secretive states in the nation when it comes to law enforcement records. We’re not talking about personal data – an officer’s street address and family details should not be accessible. 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. But we also don’t want to live in a world where those who fail to live by the laws they’ve been sworn to uphold can hide from the public.
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As the law reads now, even on-the-job misconduct and crimes committed against the public aren’t made public. That’s an unacceptable degree of “privacy” for a public employee, especially when that employee carries a gun and has the authority to use it.
Last week was Sunshine Week, when the media focuses 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. So Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, which advocates for freedom of information, suggests taking this one step at a time – an incremental pushback.
The first step: replacing one word in Government Code Section 832.7. Currently, the law says 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 “must.” That would allow collection of data that, while in no way endangering officers; it would start to build a public view of brewing problems – another Christopher Dorner or a King City-scope corruption case.
Even if the Legislature is unwilling to approve such a minor change, cities could and should act on their own. .
Police officers wield great power, and the overwhelming majority do their jobs well. But when that power is unaccountable to the public, bad things can happen.