Wednesday, January 02, 2019

New year, new laws revealing police abuses

It's the season for catalogues of new laws taking effect. (Here's a good one.) The California legislature sure passed a lot of items last year -- and outgoing Gov. Jerry signed them too.

The one that most grabs my attention is that, finally, California police departments will no longer be allowed to hide the discipline records of their officers from public view.

The new law opens up interview transcripts, evidence and full investigatory reports to the public, prosecutors and defense attorneys alike.

... Lara Bazelon, a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, said the measure could expose officer misconduct that was long withheld from defendants and could lead to numerous convictions being dismissed.

“We are going to see a lot of skeletons falling out of the closets dating back years, if not decades. That means people who were convicted unjustly and unfairly will finally get a chance to be heard,” Bazelon said.


In addition to requiring such records be opened, on July 1 another transparency law requires release of police body camera footage of officer-involved shootings and use of force within 45 days of an incident.

Forty years ago, powerful California police unions won the prohibitions on transparency that are being swept away this year. For decades, police political endorsements and police union cash ruled in Sacramento and most localities.

No more. All across the country, Black Lives Matter called out unpunished police killings. In San Francisco, police murders of Alex Nieto, Amilcar Perez Lopez, Luis Gongora Pat and Mario Woods sparked resistance to police impunity. In the recent San Francisco mayoral election, none of the major candidates were open to the police union endorsement; the powerful Police Officers Association had become toxic.

Emotionally, these new laws don't feel like much: what's a new statute weighed against lives snuffed out? No cops have suffered legal consequences for these shootings. It's still the law that fear is a good enough excuse for a police officer to start firing. And of course transparency is not self-enforcing; it's going to require vigilance to ensure that police authorities really do release records and videos. Where they can, police departments shredded some records before the transparency law took hold.

But these new laws are concrete improvements won by people who have struggled diligently against unchecked police power. So long as money and race determine who matters in society and on the streets, that struggle won't end. But let's celebrate incremental victories.


Rain Trueax said...

Police should be penalized if they don't have on a body cam and one with the cars. It's for their protection as well if they are telling the truth about being attacked. It would make the community feel safer to know they were accountable for what they were doing. Any cop without one working should be fined and worse if an incident happened.

janinsanfran said...

Rain: very much agree with you about this. When police officers internalize that they work for the public rather than rule over us, they'll have community support. Unfortunately, police departments can develop a culture in which they think they are at war with the community. Much of the SFPD has those attitudes, though I think there are plenty who don't want to.

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