California’s secret police

Pub date September 12, 2006
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL If a doctor does something really terrible and is suspended from the practice of medicine, the record is public: anyone — a potential future patient, for example — can check with the medical licensing board and find out what happened. Same goes for lawyers — discipline cases are not only public, but the legal papers routinely publish the details of the charges and the state bar association’s decisions. Judges? Same deal. Even the Pentagon, which is not known for its interest in sunshine, makes public the charges against soldiers accused of vioutf8g the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
That’s the way it should be: people who have tremendous power over the lives of others ought to be held accountable to the public.
But last week, the California Supreme Court issued one of the most disturbing decisions in years, ruling 6–1 that police disciplinary records must be for the most part secret.
The impact is so far-reaching it’s hard to fathom. As G.W. Schulz reports on page 15, it’s entirely possible that under this new standard, key details in some of the most important police-abuse cases of the past decade — from the so-called riders in Oakland to the Ramparts scandal in Los Angeles and Fajitagate in San Francisco — would have been kept under wraps. Under the broadest possible interpretation, the public will never know the names of the cops who break the law under color of authority, the bad actors who beat people up, harass (and sometimes assault) women, steal, lie, forge reports, frame suspects, fire their weapons without case, and — all too often — kill people without cause.
State law already gives cops, deputy sheriffs, and prison guards rights that go far beyond what any other public employees enjoy but has never been interpreted to bar the public entirely from disciplinary cases.
But in 2003, the San Diego County Civil Service Commission closed a hearing on the appeal of the disciplinary case of a sheriff’s deputy, and the San Diego Union-Tribune went to court to get access to the records. The resulting case went all the way to the state’s high court and ended with one of the worst rulings for the press and public interest in this state in half a century or more. Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Los Angeles Times that in the wake of the ruling “we have pretty much of a secret police force in this state.”
The state legislature needs to take this on immediately. Mark Leno, the San Francisco Democrat who chairs the Assembly Public Safety Committee (and who worked diligently and effectively to improve the Public Records Act this past session), would be a perfect person to work with sunshine advocates to draft a bill that would make the secrecy ruling moot.
In the meantime, it’s still not clear exactly how far local government will have to go to protect the rights of peace officers to abuse their public trust without any public oversight. Sunshine advocates say that San Francisco, which has always held open hearings on major police discipline cases, may not have to immediately halt the practice. The Police Commission, which is scheduled to hold a hearing on the issue Sept. 17, needs to carefully weigh the arguments of activists and media representatives before making any new policy — and must write any new rules to side as much as possible with openness. For starters, all hearings should be presumed public unless an accused officer objects — and a full hearing on that objection should precede any closure.
There’s another step city leaders can take: every year or two, the cops come along with a request for legislation that would even further sweeten their union contracts. If the San Francisco Police Officers Association is going to demand secrecy in every single disciplinary hearing, that should be the end to all progressive support for more pay, more benefits, and more goodies for an armed force that refuses to accept even basic public oversight. SFBG