Unlocking secret records, findings on police officers
A mentally ill homeless man was beaten into a coma that proved fatal by six Fullerton police officers as he screamed, “Help, dad!” Fresno police punched a homeless man in the head while he was face down with his arms behind his back. Three BART officers in Oakland detained an unruly passenger, who was then fatally shot in the back.
When the victims’ families, the media and civil rights groups tried to discover whether these officers committed any previous acts of excessive force, silence ensued.
Welcome to five years after Copley Press v. The Superior Court of San Diego.
The 2006 decision found that records and findings of alleged police misconduct maintained by commissions are secret. Many police agencies now even refuse disclosure of officer names. There have been frequent court challenges as the media and others seek to obtain even basic information on the incidents.
But to the police unions, secrecy is good. “The vast majority of the time the allegations are found to be false,” said Paul Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
Officers found to be using excessive force will be disciplined, terminated and perhaps charged, Weber said. The information will come out in court if the officer is charged.
The Copley case started in 2003 when the San Diego Union-Tribune was denied access to a closed police commission session.
An unnamed deputy was appealing his termination for failing to arrest a domestic violence suspect despite probable cause, then falsifying a police log.
Citing the “Pitchess statutes,” the commission said the records fell within protections against disclosure of officers’ disciplinary records and were not subject to disclosure requirements of the Public Records Act.
The Union-Tribune, owned by Copley Press, sued and a trial court sided with the commission. The case was appealed and the Court of Appeal reversed the decision.
But the Supreme Court overturned the appellate court, ruling that the commission should be treated as if it were an employer and that records concerning disciplinary proceedings against an officer were protected from public disclosure.
No sooner had Copley been filed than lawmakers decided to do something about it. Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, introduced SB 1019, which sought to undo much of Copley while offering some concessions to police officer security concerns.
Then came the infamous May 1, 2007, LAPD beating of demonstrators and the media at an immigration rally in MacArthur Park.
It was the first big test of Copley and the public lost: information on the officers involved would not be forthcoming.
Two months after the beating, SB 1019 sat in front of the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, further narrowed in the Senate to include just Los Angeles and Oakland.
These two cities were under a federal consent decree to adopt police reforms due to excessive misconduct. Only one legislator voted to move it out of the committee. It died there.
Today, the public can do little to learn details surrounding use-of-force incidents. As many were broadcast on the Internet, YouTube and television, police agencies clamped down on information and the courts started to hear challenges.
The San Francisco Police Commission stopped its tradition of conducting public meetings and dissemination of disciplinary records. Los Angeles’ civil service board meetings, state personnel board and the LAPD’s Board of Rights all were closed to the public.
Three police review boards were suspended late last year in Pasadena because the city attorney believed there was a conflict between implementing Copley and complying with the Brown Act.
Newspapers have been largely successful in suing to get names of officers involved in use of force.
Sometimes the public pressure for information is so great law enforcement officials leak information to quell dissent, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.
With Romero out of the Legislature, the future for another politician to take up this mantle seems bleak.
“The cop lobby is too strong, the legislators won’t vote against them,” attorney Jim Ewert said. “I just don’t see it happening given the current political climate.”
The Public Safety Committee Chairman Jose Solorio confirmed no one in Sacramento appears to championing the cause but some sort of clarifying law would be ideal.
In the era of the Fullerton beating, which caused outrage around the world, the time would be ripe to resurrect the secrecy platform either by ballot or Legislature.
Tori Richards is an investigative reporter for CalWatchdog.com, an independent, Sacramento-based journalism venture covering California state government.