On January 1st, a California law went into effect turning long-shielded police misconduct records into public records. Prior to its enactment, at least one law enforcement agency executed a mass purge of older records, preemptively stunting the law's effectiveness.
The law has also faced legal challenges from California police unions and law enforcement agencies seeking a declaration that the law is not retroactive and PDs should only have to release misconduct records created past the date of the law's effectiveness. The state Supreme Court declined an invitation to review the law, but three police unions in Contra Costa County have managed to secure a temporary restraining order while this aspect of the law is sorted out.
The law doesn't contain any language suggesting it does not apply retroactively. But it also doesn't contain any language specifically stating it applies retroactively and that's the wedge law enforcement agencies are trying to drive between themselves and their new obligations to the public. But the lawsuits aren't just coming from the law enforcement side. Agencies are now being sued for failing to turn over documents the new law says the public can obtain.
In a legal test of a new state law requiring the release of police records in shootings and other cases, The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times jointly sued the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department Friday, charging that the department is refusing to follow the statute that requires the release of records on deputies who fired their weapons or engaged in misconduct on duty.
The papers sought records of officer-involved shootings dating back to 2014. The Sheriff's Departments responded by saying it had no obligation to turn over records created prior to January 1, 2019 and would not do so until it had "clear legal authority" to release them. This lawsuit [PDF] forces the issue, putting it on the court's timetable, rather than the Sheriff's.
As the plaintiffs point out, it's not just transparency activists reading the law as retroactive. It's also one of California's largest police unions.
Respondent has taken the position that Senate Bill 1421 does not apply to the records requested “so only records of covered events occurring on or after January 1, 2019 will be disclosed.” (See Exhibit B; Exhibit D.) Respondent is mistaken. Indeed, even an opponent of Senate Bill 1421, the Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association (“LACPPOA”), admitted, “Moreover, our reading of Senate Bill 1421 is that making the records of an officer’s lawful and in policy conduct is retroactive in its impact. In other words, notwithstanding that the officer’s conduct was entirely in policy, his or her records are available for public inspection irrespective of whether or not they occurred prior to the effective date of SB 1421.”
The state's courts are going to be filling up with similar filings from both sides over the coming weeks. This should hopefully expedite erasing the supposed ambiguity from the law. Hopefully, the courts will consider the intent of the law's crafters, which was to give the public access to police misconduct records to better the police/public relations. This is clearly stated in the legislation itself:
The Legislature finds and declares all of the following:
(a) Peace officers help to provide one of our state’s most fundamental government services. To empower peace officers to fulfill their mission, the people of California vest them with extraordinary authority — the powers to detain, search, arrest, and use deadly force. Our society depends on peace officers’ faithful exercise of that authority. Misuse of that authority can lead to grave constitutional violations, harms to liberty and the inherent sanctity of human life, as well as significant public unrest.
(b) The public has a right to know all about serious police misconduct, as well as about officer-involved shootings and other serious uses of force. Concealing crucial public safety matters such as officer violations of civilians’ rights, or inquiries into deadly use of force incidents, undercuts the public’s faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement, makes it harder for tens of thousands of hardworking peace officers to do their jobs, and endangers public safety.
Nothing in that language suggests legislators wanted to reset the clock on January 1st, giving all law enforcement officers a clean slate going forward. The intent of the law is not to erase past misconduct. That doesn't serve its ultimate purpose, which is to restore the "public's faith in the legitimacy of law enforcement." Reading the law the way police unions want it read will only further deteriorate this ailing relationship.