California Attorney General an unexpected obstacle to police transparency law

Appointed to replace newly elected U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris in 2016, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra ran for his own four-year term in 2018 as a supporter of then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s law enforcement and judicial reforms. “California’s Department of Justice has modernized its police force, sponsored state legislation to require an assessment of 2015 and 2016 data related to officer-involved shootings and has explored options for bail reform,” his campaign web page declared. After winning, Becerra made similar claims in a speech at Stanford University.

But to the surprise of many Democrats, the former 12-term congressman has also emerged this year as a persistent, unexpected obstacle to a reform measure that Brown signed before he left office.

Senate Bill 1421, by Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, requires law enforcement agencies to release discipline records related to officers’ excessive use of force, sexual misconduct and dishonest actions. It replaced a previous collection of state laws and court rulings that made it close to impossible for the public to learn about sustained allegations against peace officers.

But even before it took effect on Jan. 1, dozens of police agencies attempted to undercut the law by saying it didn’t apply to misconduct before Jan. 1. Skinner and the legislative record showed that it was her clear intent to make all discipline records that departments had to legally retain available through public record requests.

CHP has produced no records on 7,000-plus officers

Becerra never supported this interpretation of SB 1421. But he initially declined to issue discipline records of state Department of Justice employees on the grounds that the question of the law’s effective date was being reviewed by state courts. Other law enforcement agencies began releasing their own records months before Becerra’s agency starting doing so following a May court ruling by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Richard Ulmer.

Meanwhile, by far the largest state police agency – the California Highway Patrol, which has more than 7,300 sworn officers – had released no records as of June 30, according to the Los Angeles Times. This prompted a complaint from Skinner. “If the state agencies themselves are acting like they’re above the law, that’s absolutely the wrong model and the wrong example to set for the rest of the local government agencies up and down the state,” she told the Times.

Becerra is also appealing part of Ulmer’s May ruling requiring his agency to hand over discipline records it has involving local officers. He wants to limit the parameters of SB 1421 so it only covers the discipline records of officers possessed by their employers. Becerra’s position is that this could lead to the undermining of agencies investigating their officers and potentially lead to the release of incorrect information. 

His department also says the language in Skinner’s bill “focused on an employer’s records about its employees” – not such records in the possession of another agency. But Ulmer didn’t go along with this interpretation. 

Last Friday, an appellate court sided with the judge’s decision and rejected Becerra’s challenge on a preliminary basis. But it set a hearing on July 18 to hear further testimony in the case.

2 comments

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  1. Richard Rider
    Richard Rider 9 July, 2019, 20:21

    “Unexpected”?? Not really.

    The Democratic Party and the public employee labor unions OWN all people occupying our statewide offices. He’s just doing what he’s told.

    “Good Attorney General. Nice Attorney General. Does our cute little Attorney General want a doggy biscuit? Sit up and beg, doggy” (sorry, I meant Attorney General).

    Reply this comment
    • eck
      eck 11 July, 2019, 19:01

      Amen. Public employee unions shouldn’t be allowed (or at least with the same privileges as other unions) – there’s a huge problem because they are a monopoly, and we’re (tax payers) essentially bargaining with ourselves.

      It’s insane. No sensible citizenry would allow such a thing.

      Reply this comment

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Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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