By JW August, journalist and Past President of Californians Aware

Firefights have broken out across California. The weapons used are not guns but words as police unions across the state are digging in over a recently enacted piece of legislation. At issue is Senate Bill 1421, which took effect on January 1. The police unions are arguing that the bill, which opens up certain police misconduct records, doesn’t apply to events prior to that date. The bill’s author says otherwise. State Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) says the law should be honored as it was written and intended. “This bill was an amendment to the Public Records Act (and) the Act does not deal with dates,” Skinner told this reporter.. “If a record exists and it falls in the category of releasable information, then it is disclosable.”

The bill was prompted by a growing series of controversial incidents involving police shootings.  Senate Bill 1421 is designed to provide the public (and journalists) access to police records when the agencies investigate their personnel and find them culpable.  Besides shootings, the bill reveals use-of-force incidents where a citizen is badly injured or killed and instances where officers are found to have committed sexual assault or lied about arrests or other enforcement activity.

Open records advocacy groups like Californians Aware and media organizations across California have been aggressive in responding to the police unions’ efforts to limit the release of records before January 1 of this year.  For example, in San Diego where I live, eight police agencies from the city police to harbor police to school police filed a petition requesting a stay on the law’s implementation.

In  response, every major media organization in San Diego has joined a lawsuit arguing the intent of the law is not as restrictive as the police unions are claiming. The concern is that by restricting the law’s reach it will severely limit the law’s impact and shield the behaviors of bad cops. KNSD, the NBC affiliate where I work, has already reported on certain police cases based on records released by agencies in the region. Those releases came before the police unions began their efforts.

In essence the arguments against retroactivity are along the same line across the state. The San Diego police unions’ filing states that the law “does not contain any express provision or language requiring retroactivity”or “clear indication” the Legislature intended this law to apply to older records. Doing so would mean “a substantial and adverse change” to the “existing privacy rights” of the officers in police unions.  In the San Diego case, the judge issued a stay and set a March 1 hearing date.  

It’s not just a firefight at the local level. Most recently, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the California State Attorney General’s office arguing the state’s top law enforcement officer has to comply with the new law as well and stop denying access requests until courts settle the retroactivity issue—which may take years to be resolved.

“The fact the law even exists is something I thought would never happen,” says Calaware’s Terry Francke.  That it has finally arrived is cited by veteran newspaper columnist Dan Walters as one of two major indicators that law enforcement lobbies have lost much of their traditional sway in the Legislature, where the stark Democrat majority need no longer fear accusations of being “soft on crime.”

It’s been widely reported that police unions and law enforcement associations in California have been a powerful force in state politics for many years.

Since 2011, according to checkthepolice.org, 118 state senate and assembly members as well as the governor have received money from police associations in California.

Checkthepolice.org also reports that the “police unions and associations gave $5.5 million to candidates for the California state legislature since 2011.“  For comparison, this is nine times more than the National Rifle Association has spent lobbying during this same period. The website’s research shows candidates in either party who didn’t support police reform bills “receive substantially more money from police unions and associations than those who support reform.”