Police accountability bill passes key state Senate committee

In a sign that the power of the cops in Sacramento may be changing, senators berate law-enforcement lobbyists

A bill that would open some disciplinary records of police officers accused to serious misconduct cleared a key state Senate committee last week after several senators berated police witnesses and made strong statements about the need for more public oversight.

Melina Abdulla, a Black Lives Matter activist and professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State LA, told senators that this was the first bill her group has ever sponsored. To her left is Susan Leff of the California Public Defenders Association

“Just because the job is tough doesn’t give you the right to kill people,” Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Los Angeles), told representatives of the Peace Officers Research Association of California. Looking directly at the pro-cop witnesses, he said: “There is not a single minority [in the room] representing the police and district attorneys. That speaks volumes.”

He continued: “There is no reverence for life in minority communities. Do you know why Black folks run from the police? Because we fear the police.”

The bill before the committee was SB 1421, by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley). The bill would partially overturn the 2006 Supreme Court Decisionthat effectively cut off all public access to police misconduct records.

As Susan Leff, an assistant public defender in Nevada County and former attorney for SF’s Office of Citizen Complaints, told the Public Safety Committee, “Before Copley Press [the Supreme Court Case], the community could see what we were doing.” Now, all disciplinary proceedings are completely secret.

That means, she said, that the public doesn’t know when the same officer is committing the same offenses over and over.

“Transparency is a two-way street,” she said. “The other side is accountability.”

The measure wouldn’t open all police disciplinary files; just ones involving serious incidents.

From the bill analysis by the Senate Public Safety Committee:

Records related to reports, investigations, or findings may be subject to disclosure if they involve the following: (1) incidents involving the discharge of a firearm or electronic control weapons by an officer; (2) incidents involving strikes of impact weapons or projectiles to the head or neck area; (3) incidents of deadly force or serious bodily injury by an officer; (4) incidents of sustained sexual assault by an officer; or (5) incidents relating to sustained findings of dishonesty by a peace officer.

“It doesn’t take us back to 2006, when we had much more access, but it will begin to bring the dialogue and accountability that is necessary,” Skinner said. “This is a way to begin to deal with the anguish of communities.”

SB 1421 isn’t the first effort to bring some sunshine back to police discipline. Several past bills, including a 2016 measure by then-Sen Mark Leno, died after furious lobbying by law enforcement.

The so-called Peace Officers Bill of Rights, which limits public access to police records, has remained untouchable in Sacramento.

But the rash of police shootings and the growing public anger over a lack of police accountability may be changing the politics of a state Legislature that has been loath to buck the cop-and-DA lobby.

“You are completely and utterly out of touch with how you are perceived by major segments of California,” Sen. Holly Mitchel (D-Santa Barbara) said. “You are not going to be able to lobby your way out of it.”

She added: “If you don’t understand that we have a big problem with law enforcement in the country, you have a bigger problem. The greater community will not stand by. The POBR days are over.”

The bill passed 5-1. It now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The community support for the measure is widespread; in fact, this is the first time in history that Black Lives Matter has sponsored a piece of California legislation.

It’s not going to be easy, but there’s a chance that real accountability could be back after this session.