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The Challenge of Police Reform

All Eyes on Sacramento as SB 1019 Heads
to Assembly Public Safety Committee

By Mark Schlosberg, Special to Fog City Journal

June 24, 2007

In August, 2006, the California Supreme Court decided the case of Copley Press v. Superior Court, which resulted in disciplinary proceedings regarding police misconduct complaints before the San Francisco Police Commission - and other oversight agencies throughout the state - being closed to the public.

On Tuesday the Assembly Public Safety Committee will hear SB 1019, which would overturn Copley Press and restore public access. The police unions are mounting an extremely aggressive fight to stop the bill's passage and constituent calls for reform could make the difference in this bill passing, where other statewide accountability efforts have failed.

The history of legislative efforts to promote accountability in Sacramento is, in many ways, less a history in accountability and more a history of the influence of the police association lobby.

In 1978, four years after the California Supreme Court decision in Pitchess v. Superior Court, which mandated that the defense in certain criminal cases be provided with information about citizen complaints about involved police officers, the legislature looked to manage the process. In the years following the Pitchess case, some police departments shredded their complaint files, rather than turn over the documents to the defense. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, shredded decades of files and over 130 criminal cases were dismissed as a result of this misconduct.

The result: A "compromise" was struck whereby complaints had to be held for five years, but they would be confidential. While the intent of the statute was to apply to internal affairs documents, the statute was applied to external agencies such as the Police Commission in Copley Press.

Over a decade latter, in the aftermath of Rodney King, there were several legislative attempts at promoting police accountability. All failed in the face of opposition from the police lobby. And, just four years ago, following a series of hearings throughout the state, then-Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson authored three relatively modest pieces of legislation to promote accountability. The bills would have mandated that police departments develop early warning systems to track problem officers, have a location where citizens could file complaints outside of the police department, and create some minimal whistleblower protections for police officers. All three were opposed by the police lobby and all three failed.

This time, however, this situation is different. There is a wide coalition from newspapers, to civil rights organizations, from libertarians to progressive law enforcement and oversight professionals supporting SB 1019. Also, this time the police associations' aggressive opposition has not been kept behind closed doors, but has become public for all to see.

Two organizations, prior the Senate vote on the bill last month, threatened to torpedo term limit reform if SB 1019 passed out of the legislature. Senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), exposed the threat on the floor of the senate and the bill passed by a narrow 22-11 margin.

Now SB 1019 heads to the Assembly Public Safety Committee where its members - including San Francisco's own Fiona Ma - are sure to face similarly strong pressure from the police lobby. Assembly member Ma has yet to indicate which way she will vote.

Assemblymember Fiona Ma

SB 1019 has already been supported by the Police Commission, the Board of Supervisors, Sheriff Hennessey, Assembly member Mark Leno, and Senators Carole Migden and Leland Yee. San Franciscans need to make their voices heard, so that members of the public safety committee know where their constituents stand.

History tells us that no legislative police accountability effort is easy, but with the broad base of support for SB 1019, this time it is possible. As a result of the Copley Press decision, California now ties for last among other states in access to information about police misconduct. On Tuesday, all eyes will be on Sacramento to see whether or not legislators vote to change that, overturn Copley Press, and pass SB 1019.

Mark Schlosberg is the Police Practices Policy Director of the ACLU of Northern California. To learn more about SB 1019, visit the ACLU's website at www.aclunc.org.

Mark Schlosberg




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