MotherJones by Annie Ma
February 5, 2019
For decades, when it came to releasing records related to police officers’ conduct, California was among the least transparent states in the country. That was supposed to change a few weeks ago. Last August, the state legislature passed a law that made it easier for the public to obtain police records relating to shootings involving officers, severe use of force, and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying. But even before the law, known as SB 1421, went into effect on January 1, police unions began a legal effort to prevent any disciplinary records and personnel files created before 2019 from being released. As many as 20 lawsuits over the law’s meaning are now moving through the state courts, with cops facing off against journalists and civil rights groups over what the new law really means.
SB 1421 was among a slate of criminal justice reform bills signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown last summer. Its passage followed a wave of activism sparked by the death of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man who was shot and killed by a police officer outside Sacramento in March 2018. Along with a bill that requires the release of officers’ body camera footage of deadly shootings or use of force incidents, SB 1421 signaled a shift toward increased transparency.
“There was more urgency felt by legislators as well as the public to actually take action,” says Melanie Ochoa, a lawyer at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, which is fighting a suit over the law filed by the Los Angeles Police Department’s union. “The public has long wanted something like this. There were 150 different organizations that signed on in support, and only 14 who opposed, all of whom are law enforcement.”
Law enforcement unions claim that the new law does not apply to records created before 2019, and they have obtained temporary restraining orders and preliminary injunctions blocking several local police departments from releasing any older records. “Our goal is to protect our members’ privacy rights in incidents that occurred before this law went into effect,” Grant Ward, the president the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Employees’ Benefit Association, said in a statement after a court issued an order blocking the release of files. “We have a strong legal position that the bill shall not be applied retroactively.”