A chance to end police secrecy

Pub date May 29, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL There’s still a chance to restore sunshine to police disciplinary records, but it’s going to take strong and visible support from public officials around the Bay Area.

A bill authored by Sen. Gloria Romero (D–Los Angeles), SB 1019, would allow the public limited access to hearings and reports on police misconduct. That’s nothing new; the San Francisco Police Commission has held disciplinary hearings in public for years. But a 2006 state Supreme Court decision, Copley v. Superior Court, barred that practice, giving peace officers a stunning and unprecedented level of protection from public oversight.

All the Romero bill would do is restore the law to where it was pre-Copley. It makes perfect sense: cops have immense authority and power, and when they abuse it, the public loses faith in the law enforcement process. As San Francisco sheriff Mike Hennessey points out in a letter supporting SB 1019, shedding some light on the system and ensuring that officers who are suspended or terminated for misconduct can’t avoid public scrutiny "will help law enforcement by allowing it to inform the public that internal discipline within public safety agencies is a serious matter and that steps are being taken to maintain that discipline."

Assemblymember Mark Leno (D–San Francisco) tried earlier this year to overturn the Copley decision, but his bill was bottled up in the Assembly Committee on Public Safety. Even his San Francisco colleague, Fiona Ma, wouldn’t vote in favor of the bill. Romero, the Senate majority leader, has done a bit better: SB 1019 squeaked through the Public Safety Committee on a 3–2 vote and is now headed for the Senate floor.

The vote there will be close too: the police secrecy lobby has pulled out all the stops to fight this, and even Democrats in Sacramento are afraid of offending police organizations. That’s why it’s important that community leaders around the Bay stand up and make clear that this is a bill with broad-based support.

The San Francisco Police Commission has endorsed it, as have the San Francisco supervisors. The city councils of Oakland and Berkeley are on record as supporting it. But we haven’t heard from Mayor Gavin Newsom or Oakland mayor Ron Dellums; both need to speak out in favor of the bill and let Romero know that she has their support.

Sen. Leland Yee told us he fully supports the bill; so does Sen. Carole Migden. So far, though, Don Perata, the State Senate president pro tem who represents Berkeley and Oakland — cities that have long-established police oversight agencies — hasn’t take a position. He needs to not only endorse the bill but use the considerable power of his office to push for its passage. Every vote will count on this one, and Perata’s constituents should let him know that they’re watching. *