New Police Records Law Sparks Legal Challenges

A new state law that has opened up years of police misconduct records to public disclosure is pitting law enforcement unions, local jurisdictions, and transparency advocates against one another in courtrooms across the state.

SB 1421 was authored by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) and took effect on Jan. 1. It mandates public disclosure of police shooting records, records regarding sexual assault and lying by officers, as well as other forms of excessive use of force or misconduct. In response, police unions have pounced

Legal battles over SB 1421 are currently being waged in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, Ventura, and Orange Counties. In most of the cases, police unions are attempting to bar the release of documents for any incidents that took place prior to Jan. 1.

The plaintiffs have had some preliminary wins. On Thursday, an Orange County judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the sheriff’s department from releasing any records dating prior to Jan. 1. Similar orders were handed down in San Bernardino and Los Angeles, where the union that represents the LAPD has fought retroactive record disclosure.

But the transparency advocates are fighting back too. Media organizations are challenging the judge’s order in L.A. Orange County officials also fought unsuccessfully to ensure disclosure of any police records within the county’s possession to date.

“We are committed to transparency,” Orange County attorney Laura Knapp said in court.

The unions argue that the law unfairly allows access to records that were believed to be private. They also say SB 1421 would be far too onerous for agencies if it requires dissemination of records that stretch back years or decades.

Proponents of the law, however, say it’s imperative that the public be aware of possible police wrongdoing — especially for those cases in which the officers remain on the job. San Mateo County’s district attorney has already said he will consider reopening a criminal investigation into an officer once accused of sexual assault because of the information gleaned from records released under SB 1421.

At least one attorney had suggested a possible compromise for the dispute. Labor and law attorney Scott Tiedemann says a five-year window would be a reasonable limit for the dissemination of police records.

As City News discussed previously, SB 1421 has also sparked a debate in the City of Inglewood which voted — coincidentally, it says — to destroy hundreds of police records just before the new law took effect. You can read more about that controversy here