The new laws bring us closer to the state of affairs that existed before 2006, when a state Supreme Court decision slammed the door on police accountability.
Jochen Tack imageBROKER/NewscomThe wheels of justice turn slowly, but they turn even more slowly when it comes to achieving substantial legislative reform. With little fanfare and no statement, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that allows the public to learn details from investigations of police shootings, major use-of-force incidents and officers who may have falsified reports, planted evidence or committed a sexual assault. This is a no-brainer in a free society, but it took civil libertarians 12 years of work to overcome the scare tactics of police unions, GOP legislators and other members of the Secrecy Lobby.
The new laws bring us closer to the state of affairs that existed before 2006, when a dreadful California Supreme Court decision slammed the door on openness and police accountability. Since then, police agencies have had free reign to protect their worst officers.
The 2006 case, Copley Press v. County of San Diego, centered on the San Diego Union-Tribune's effort to gain access to a disciplinary hearing involving a deputy sheriff who was appealing his termination from the force. The court found that the public has no right to learn about the goings-on in a civilian-service commission or virtually anything about misbehaving officials. It rejected the Court of Appeals' conclusion that the public has a right to access government information and quoted from a shockingly Orwellian 1978 ruling: "There is no constitutional right to have access to particular government information, or to require openness from the bureaucracy."
The results were predictable. Unions demanded—and gained—secrecy. Cities restricted their civilian-review boards. The public couldn't get access to information even after the most egregious-seeming incidents. Progressive California became the most regressive state when it comes to holding accountable its most powerful officials, writes Steven Greenhut.