California governor proposes rolling back access to police misconduct records

By TRÂN NGUYỄN from the Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration has proposed an end to public disclosure of investigations of abusive and corrupt police officers, handing the responsibility instead to local agencies in an effort to help cover an estimated $31.5 billion budget deficit.

J Vasquez, a representative with the Communities United For Restorative Justice, speaks in front of the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., June 14, 2023. Vasquez is part of a coalition that is criticizing the California governor’s administration over a proposed change to a 2021 landmark law – a change that could make it harder to access police misconduct records. (AP Photo/Trân Nguyễn)

The proposal, part of the governor’s budget package that he is still negotiating with the Legislature, has prompted strong criticism from a coalition of criminal justice and press freedom groups, which spent years pushing for the disclosure rules that were part of a landmark law Newsom signed in 2021.

The law allows the state Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training to investigate and decertify police officers for misconduct, such as use of excessive force, sexual assault and dishonesty. It requires the commission to make public the records of decertification cases.

The Newsom administration now wants to get rid of that transparency element. The commission says the public could still get the records from police departments. But advocates say local police departments often resist releasing that information.

A number of states with a police decertification process, including Republican-led ones such as Tennessee and Georgia, require state agencies to divulge records of police misconduct.

In Tennessee, records made available through the requirement provided a slew of new details on police officers’ actions when they brutally beat Tyre Nichols, a Black man, during a traffic stop earlier this year. Those details, released by the state police certification commission, were not previously made public by the local police department.

“It’s a slap in the face to the family members who have had their loved ones stolen from them that … a key provision of the decertification process is not being honored,” J Vasquez, of social justice group Communities United For Restorative Justice, said at a news conference last week.

Removing the transparency element from the 2021 law would continue eroding public trust, Antioch Mayor Pro Tem Tamisha Torres-Walker said. The city, 45 miles (72 kilometers) east of San Francisco, was shaken after a federal investigation found more than half of the officers in the Antioch police force were in a group text where some officers freely used racial slurs and bragged about fabricating evidence and beating suspects.

“To say, ‘go to the very people who commit the crimes against your community and ask them to reveal themselves to you so that you can hold them accountable,’ I don’t think that’s a fair process,” Torres-Walker said.

The coalition of more than 20 groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also accused the Democratic governor of abusing the budget process to push through his proposal introduced in April.

Carmen-Nicole Cox, director of government affairs for ACLU California Action, said Newsom’s proposal should have gone through the traditional legislative process, instead of being put into the budget.

Democratic Sen. Steven Bradford, who authored the 2021 landmark bill, declined to comment on the proposed change.

The governor’s office referred questions to the commission, whose spokesperson said the proposed change is a cost-saving measure that would still allow the public to access information on decertification cases from local police departments. California is facing a nearly $32 billion budget deficit this year after enjoying several years of record-breaking surpluses and the proposal is one of many of Newsom’s cost-cutting measures.

Neither the governor’s office nor the commission shared how much money the state could save under the proposal.

According to a May budget request, the commission estimated it will handle up to 3,500 decertification cases each year. That’s about 4% of all officers in California. The commission, which has suspended or decertified 44 police officers so far this year, requested an additional $6 million to handle the large number of complaints.

“Because of the substantial fiscal implications, as well as the need to urgently implement these cost-saving measures into law, the budget process is the most appropriate avenue for this,” commission spokesperson Meagan Poulos said in a statement.

For decades, police officers in California have enjoyed layers of legal protections helping shield most of law enforcement misconduct records from public scrutiny, First Amendment Coalition Legal Director David Loy said.

In 2018, things began to shift after the Legislature passed a bill requiring the disclosure of records pertaining to police misconduct including use of excessive force, sexual assault and dishonesty. That law was expanded in 2021 to include the release of investigations into police racist or biased behavior, unlawful searches or arrests and use of unreasonable force.

The 2021 decertification law was hailed as another mechanism to hold law enforcement accountable.

“California has always been a black hole for police transparency,” said Loy, whose group is part of the coalition opposing the change. “The last thing California should be doing is taking any step backward on police transparency.”

The state Legislature passed its own version of the state budget Thursday to meet its deadline without including Newsom’s proposed change to the decertification process. Legislative leaders and the governor’s office will continue negotiations to finalize the budget by the end of the month.