Two correction officers from the Santa Clara District choked and abused people detained in the District Prison and then tried to cover it up. Contra Costa County's prosecutors have been forced to dismiss criminal cases because an Antioch detective has shared confidential information with well-known criminals.
The history of dishonesty by a sheriff detective in Los Angeles County endangered dozens of criminal convictions, including murder cases. A capitola patrol sergeant sent hundreds of lewd texts to a young volunteer policewoman.
State Senator Nancy Skinner
These disturbing revelations and more were only published last year due to Senate Law 1421, which I wrote in 2018. After four decades of keeping all police records confidential, SB 1421 gave Californians public access to records of a very limited number of actions taken by the police and other law enforcement agencies that serve our communities.
For the most part, SB 1421 worked as intended: law enforcement agencies across the state have released a plethora of records that illuminate officers who have committed sexual assault, manipulated evidence, or fired their guns, giving us both the police and the police to hold police officers accountable.
However, even with the limited number of records that SB 1421 allowed, many agencies raised their feet or simply refused to publish records. For example, the Bay Area News Group had to file a lawsuit against the San Jose Police Department last month, announcing that it would take years to review and release more than 80 files from 2014 to 2019. Other police authorities have hindered SB 1421's intent by charging exorbitant fees or publishing records the contents of which have been obscured to such an extent that they have been almost useless.
As good as SB 1421 is, we cannot find out about officials who are racist or who conduct illegal arrests and searches. It has also left a blatant hole: some misconduct officials have given up their forces before the disciplinary investigations are completed, so they can keep their records secret when looking for work at other departments.
After the murder of George Floyd, we learned that Derek Chauvin, the police officer in charge in Minneapolis, had a documented history of complaints about misconduct and violence, which makes it even clearer that the communities deserve to know about the officers' actions, that they monitor. That is why I introduced SB 776 this year.
SB 776, whose first hearing is scheduled for Wednesday, would go beyond current law by:
• Expand public access to all records of an official's use of violence, dishonesty related to criminal investigations and sexual assault at work.
• Open all disciplinary records involving officials who are racist or biased.
• The release of records is required even if an officer leaves before an investigation is completed.
• Providing access to records of illegal arrests and searches.
• Agencies must review the history of official complaints, disciplinary proceedings, and violence before hiring a candidate with law enforcement experience.
• Interrupt the practice of keeping records for only five years.
• Ban agencies from charging more than the actual cost of copying records.
• Establishing monetary damages and fines for agencies that fail to comply.
Most police officers do their work with honor and dignity. However, we cannot ignore the fact that years of misconduct by officials have led to a crisis of confidence in law enforcement in this country.
It is encouraging to see that the Californian police officers union, the Peace Officers Research Association of California, is taking steps to advance police accountability reform. It now supports aspects of SB 776, including the need to conduct thorough background checks on potential hires, even if these officials leave other departments before the disciplinary negotiations are complete.
If we want to restore confidence in the police, we have to hold officials – and authorities – to account if they do something wrong. The best way to do this is to help agencies and officials get clean by adopting SB 776.
State Senator Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, chairs the Senate's Public Security Policy and Budget Committees.