Transparency Troubles: Police Resist Public Access to Internal Affairs Files
Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1421 into law. This new legislation allows the public access to documents and information about internal affairs investigations of law enforcement agencies in California. State Senator Nancy Skinner spearheaded the law, breaking decades of secrecy that surrounded the misconduct of California’s police officers.
By the strictures of the new law, members of the public now have access to an exhaustive list of documents. These files include disciplinary records, interview footage, all records of an investigation, documented pieces of evidence, and autopsy reports.
Although the bill went into effect on January 1, 2019, police departments and law enforcement agencies are resisting this new effort in creating trust between them and the public.
Slow to Release
Senate Bill 1421 offers the public insight on internal affairs investigations regarding shootings, use of force, and sexual misconduct. The bill will undoubtedly be useful for attorneys investigating wrongful deaths, especially those that could have been the result of police misconduct or negligence.
However, police departments have dug in their heels in the face of the legislation. Police unions fought tooth and nail against the bill throughout the legislative process. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, some police organizations argue that the law only applies to files and documents created after the bill went into effect. Some law enforcement organizations went to court to contest the bill. Six unions in Contra Costa County appealed to courts to stop their cities from unsealing personnel files created before 2019.
Some police unions claim that the new law violates the privacy of their members and potentially damage careers. But supporters of the bill point out that it exposes information that would be invaluable in trials regarding police violence. Namely, the documents now available can reveal if an officer has a history of violence or repeated reports of excessive use of force. Previously, these kinds of data were unavailable to the families of victims of police shootings and similar crimes.
However, these files may not even see the light of day.
A Delay in Complying with the Law
Even though it’s has been months since the bill went into effect, some of California’s largest law enforcement agencies haven’t released any files at all. By June 2019, California’s Department of Justice released only two records. Meanwhile, the following agencies have released no records because of appeals pending before the court:
- California Highway Patrol
- California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
- Stockton Police Department
- San Jose Police Department
- Downey Police Department
- Orange County Sheriff’s Department
Police unions aren’t using legislative procedures to postpone compliance with the new bill, but they’re destroying the files. Fremont City shredded decades-worth of archives and police records, including files on shootings involving police officers. A representative claimed that this was a routine procedure. But the timeline of the shredding raised the suspicions of many. Fremont police departments have also reclassified documents into a new category to exempt them from the scope of the legislation. Downey’s police department shredded all but 33 pages of their documents and still refuse to share those.
The new law is aimed at fostering trust between the police and the people they’ve sworn to serve and protect. But the actions of California’s law enforcement agencies raise more doubts. One can only hope that compliance will win out over resistance someday.