Up against the police secrecy lobby

Pub date April 24, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL On April 17 the full weight of the state’s secrecy lobby and police unions descended on Sacramento to prevent the public from having any access to the records of peace officers who have faced disciplinary charges. The tactics were brutal: Everett Bobbitt, a police lawyer, testified to the Assembly Public Safety Committee that allowing any sunshine whatsoever would instantly threaten the lives of hardworking cops and their families.

His argument was bizarre, reminiscent of some of the tortured claims that the Bush administration made in seeking support for the war in Iraq and the civil liberties fiasco called the USA PATRIOT Act. He suggested that criminal gangs might find out something that would allow them to threaten police officers (despite the fact that until a recent court decision these records had been open for more than 20 years in San Francisco and 30 in Berkeley, and not a single cop had been in any way physically harmed by the information). He claimed that peace officers have an extraordinary right to privacy (despite the fact that as public employees who are given guns and badges and extraordinary powers, they need at least some degree of public accountability).

And the committee, despite being dominated by Democrats, was utterly cowed. It was a disgrace, and public officials and law enforcement leaders in San Francisco and the East Bay need to make a point of joining the fight to ensure that police secrecy doesn’t continue to carry the day.

At issue was a bill by Assemblymember Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that would overturn an odious 2006 court decision known as Copley. In that ruling, the California Supreme Court concluded that all files and hearings reutf8g to police discipline must be kept entirely secret. The ruling "has effectively shut down virtually every forum in which the public previously had access to the police discipline process," Tom Newton, general counsel to the California Newspaper Publishers Association, wrote in a letter supporting Leno’s bill, AB 1648.

Newton added, "Copley represents nothing less than complete and total victory for the secrecy lobby in this state. In the ultimate perversion of legislative intent, the most powerful forces in government and their exceptionally creative and effective lobbyists have achieved a perfect storm of official secrecy – making it illegal to inform the public about official corruption…. These aren’t just any public employees that have achieved the holy grail of KGB-like official secrecy – they are the only public officials given the right by the public to affect the personal liberty of citizens and even take life, if necessary to protect the public peace."

Leno’s bill – which would simply restore the law to what it was for decades – had the support of the American Civil Liberties Union and a long list of grassroots organizations, including the Asian Law Caucus, Chinese for Affirmative Action, La Raza Centro Legal, the NAACP, and the National Black Police Association.

And yet Leno didn’t have the votes in the committee to even move the bill to the floor. Not one of his four Democratic colleagues (Jose Solorio of Anaheim, Hector de la Torre of South Gate, Anthony J. Portantino of Pasadena, and San Francisco’s Fiona Ma) was willing to move the bill forward. Ma, apparently, was among those who bought the police line: she told the Guardian she was "not prepared to vote for Leno’s bill as it was" but would be willing to accept a compromise that "also protects the rights of family members." Remember, nothing in Leno’s bill in any way endangers or provides any information on any member of a police officer’s family.

The only good news is that a similar, slightly weaker bill, SB 1019, by state senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), has cleared the Senate’s Public Safety Committee and will go to the Senate floor – and if it passes, it will come before the Assembly. So there’s still a chance to pass some version of a police accountability and sunshine bill this year.

It’s crucial that public officials and particularly law enforcement leaders speak out in favor of this legislation. The city of Berkeley has formally endorsed the bill, but Mayor Gavin Newsom and Oakland mayor Ron Dellums have been silent and need to speak up. So should San Francisco sheriff Mike Hennessey (who told us he supports the idea in principle but thinks Leno’s proposal goes too far) and District Attorney Kamala Harris.

And Fiona Ma needs to hear, loudly, from her constituents: police accountability is a priority, and she can’t get away with ducking it. *