In the wake of the sexual misconduct scandal that has engulfed the Oakland Police Department, state Sen. Mark Leno is considering asking California voters to decide whether to give the public more access to the personnel records of law enforcement officers.
The Oakland scandal broke weeks after the Legislature killed a bill by the San Francisco Democrat that called for sustained complaints concerning sexual assault and excessive force to be open to anyone who asks for them.
"It's quite possible it cannot be done legislatively, that the power of the law enforcement lobby is so intense that it's not going to move successfully through the Legislature," Leno said in an interview. "The only way we may have to change these secrecy laws would be to go to the ballot."
He could try to put his proposal before voters in 2018 to coincide with the next governor's race.
In late May, Leno's bill was held in the state Senate Appropriations Committee without discussion. Because Leno will soon be termed out of office, he will not be able to reintroduce the legislation.
Several law enforcement lobbying organizations opposed his bill. Leaders of the Peace Officers Research Association, a labor group representing police officers, said the proposal would harm public safety and allow criminals to publicly attack the reputation of good police officers.
"Senator Leno will maintain the myth that somehow letting people access the personnel files is good policy and somehow will address the issue that it will reduce police violence," Tim Yaryan, who represents the Association of Deputy District Attorneys, said during a state Senate Public Safety Committee hearing in April. "I don't think getting into a personnel file is going to do a darn thing."
For the last four decades, California law has barred the public from getting access to the misconduct and discipline records of law enforcement officers.
During Mayor Libby Schaaf's most recent news conference, announcing that yet another police chief was stepping down, she said 11 times that she was not able to release details about the investigations.
That has been frustrating to members of the Oakland City Council, who say they've been kept in the dark on the multiple investigations into some police officers who allegedly had sex with an underage girl and others who allegedly traded racist text messages.
"I think I can speak for the entire council of our frustration, not knowing what others know," City Councilman Larry Reid, who represents East Oakland, told reporters recently. "We certainly understand that the police have these enormous rights given under the state law as it relates to law enforcement officers, but we would like to know something."
Reid asked City Administrator Sabrina Landreth to find out from City Attorney Barbara Parker if the council can get more information about the investigations in closed session.
"We are having to rely on those of you who have to report the news on a daily basis for us to learn anything about what's going on with our Police Department," Reid said.
At last Friday's news conference Mayor Schaaf was asked about the council's frustration.
"It is frustrating for me as a public servant who has always believed in transparency and openness and honesty to be very constrained by state law that prohibits me from sharing personnel matters related to police officers," Schaaf answered.
Leno, meantime, says greater transparency could prevent police misconduct.
"If officers have the feeling and belief and understanding that there will be no responsibility or accountability or consequence for their behavior, they're human beings, and they're going to do things that they might not do if they knew that there would be accountability and there would be consequences because the public would know what's going on," Leno said.
The California American Civil Liberties Union helped write Leno's bill.
Natasha Minsker, director of the state chapter's Center for Advocacy and Policy, said the OPD misconduct scandal, which includes inquiries at several other Bay Area police agencies, is proof positive that state law needs to change.
"The nature of these allegations and breadth of this scandal calls into question, once again, police departments' ability to hold their own officers accountable for job related misconduct," Minsker said in an emailed statement. "That so many cities and officers are implicated in this clear abuse of power points to a larger, systemic problem that arises from California's secretive police misconduct laws."
KQED's Queena Kim, Guy Marzorati, Alex Emslie and Sandhya Dirks contributed to this post.