Senate Bills on Police Public Information Meet Mixed Fates

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday April 20, 2007

Legislation that would re-open police disciplinary hearings and open up police personnel disciplinary files narrowly passed the Senate Public Safety Committee this week on a partisan 3-2 vote, leading advocates to the conclusion that a compromise will be necessary for the bill to survive both the Legislature and a possible veto from Gov. Schwarzenegger.  

An Assembly bill (AB 1648) by Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that was similar to State Sen. Gloria Romero’s (D-Los Angeles) bill was pulled by Leno before it came to a vote this week in the Assembly Public Safety Committee. 

Romero’s SB 1019 seeks to overturn the 2006 Copley Press, Inc. v. Superior Court (County of San Diego) ruling, in which the California Supreme Court decided that counties could properly bar the public from police disciplinary hearings. In addition, SB 1019 would expand the public’s right to see some police disciplinary records that were not available before the Supreme Court’s ruling.  

Voting for the measure in Tuesday’s meeting were three Democrats (Romero, Cedillo Gilbert, and Mark Ridley-Thomas, all of Los Angeles). Voting against it were the committee’s two Republicans, Dave Cogdill of Modesto, and Bob Margett of Los Angeles. 

In announcing the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California’s support for Leno’s bill, which the organization described as “similar” to Romero’s, Police Practices Policy Director Mark Schlosberg said that, “the public has a right to know about misconduct by public officials who are paid for with public tax dollars.” 

“The Supreme Court decision, Copley Press v. Superior Court (2006), shuts down public access to information about police complaints and hearings that have traditionally been open,” the ACLU of Northern California announced this week in its release. “Since the Copley decision, San Francisco Police Commission hearings of disciplinary cases and records have been closed. Other oversight agencies throughout the state have been similarly affected including those in Los Angeles, San Diego, Berkeley and Oakland.” 

Following Tuesday’s hearing and vote on SB 1019, at least one local advocate for the bill believes compromise will be necessary to ensure its passage and the governor’s signature into law. 

“It’s clear that there will have to be amendments,” Rashidah Grinag, representative of the Oakland community organization PUEBLO, said by telephone. “A return to the pre-Copley open public hearings may be acceptable to all sides. But release of police disciplinary records is going to be a problem. Attorneys for police agencies told the committee that police would be put in jeopardy if that information was released to the public. They made it pretty melodramatic.” 

Grinage also said that police agency attorneys said “we didn’t mind having public disciplinary hearings in the past, but recently, members of the press and defense attorneys have begun to show up to monitor them. So they were saying they didn’t mind having the public hearings, so long as the public didn’t notice them. Now that the public is noticing them, they want them stopped. There’s a lot of irony in that.” 

Grinage said Senate President Don Perata (D-Oakland) will be a “key figure” in forging a compromise to get Romero’s bill passed into law, and lobbying for the measure by East Bay Area activists is now expected to turn to Perata’s office. 

Besides Grinage from PUEBLO, Berkeley Police Review Committee Director Victoria Irby, Berkeley PRC member Sharon Kidd, Oakland Community Police Review Board Director Joyce Hicks, CPRB policy analyst Patrick Caseras, Northern California ACLU representative Mark Schlosberg, and Chris Morray Jones of the Ella Baker Center in Oakland all came to Sacramento on Tuesday from the Bay Area to testify in favor of Romero’s bill. 

Oakland City Council’s Rules Committee has scheduled a hearing on SB 1019 on May 3 with the possibility of the full Council eventually endorsing the bill. Oakland City Council previously endorsed Leno’s AB 1648.  

In November of 2006, the City of Berkeley contested a lawsuit brought by the Berkeley Police Association that contended similarly to the Copley case that police officer hearings and records of the hearings must remain closed to protect the privacy of police officers. 

The city lost to the BPA last February in Superior Court.