CA Police Reform Proposal: Replace Some Social Service Callouts, More Unsealed Records

A crime-scene photo from the 2018 slaying of Joshua Pawlick by Oakland police officers was released under a landmark police transparency law that took effect on Jan. 1, 2019. (Via Oakland Police Department)

State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced two new police reform bills on Monday that would provide more public access to misconduct records, and divert responses to some emergencies away from armed officers.

Senate Bill 776 aims to broaden and strengthen police transparency requirements, while Senate Bill 773 would redirect 911 calls about mental health or drug overdose emergencies to social service agencies rather than law enforcement.

In January 2019, Skinner’s police transparency law SB 1421 went into effect. While that law provided a first look into limited types of police misconduct and uses of force investigations that had been hidden since the 1970s, many requestors including KQED, have been stymied by agencies’ long delays, narrow readings of the law and legal challenges to disclosure.

Skinner said seeing the long list of prior complaints against Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd in May, generated new urgency for her to close loopholes in SB 1421.

“It's necessary that our communities know who is in their police forces,” Skinner said. “Are these officers with a history of egregious misconduct, with a history of egregious racist or discriminatory actions or a history of egregious uses of force? Without knowing that, we can't hold our local agencies accountable and we can't really have trust in policing.”

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Notably, SB 776 would make public the disciplinary records of officers’ investigated for bias — including racism, homophobia or anti-Semitism. That category of misconduct was not included in the original law.

Records related to the two categories of misconduct — official dishonesty and sexual assault — that were delineated in SB 1421 would also be broadened. Skinner’s proposal would require police agencies to turn over the records of officers who resign before an investigation is completed.

In 2019, KQED asked San Leandro for records related to former police officer Marco Becerra’s alleged sexual assault of a 17-year-old that he met through a program for young people who are interested in law enforcement. But San Leandro told KQED no responsive records existed.

“The City did not complete an investigation and no sustained finding was made by the City against Mr. Becerra,” a lawyer for the city wrote.

Becerra was charged by the Alameda District Attorney with three counts of unlawful sex with a minor. Those charges were eventually dropped.

In another instance, the city of Rohnert Park kept misconduct records secret through a settlement with a police officer suspected of unlawfully seizing marijuana and cash along Highway 101.

SB 776 would make records from cases like these disclosable. It would also impose steep financial penalties on agencies that delay the release of records.

After a year and a half, the California Highway Patrol — which employs more than 7,000 peace officers — has only disclosed two records that are responsive to a request for all records between 2014 and 2019. KQED is suing the agency.

Following a month’s grace period, SB 776 would impose a $1,000 fine for each day that an agency delays production of records.

“It doesn't do any good to pass a law that promises public access and then to have no teeth for holding agencies accountable for actually releasing those records,” Skinner said.

SB 773, meanwhile, establishes an advisory board to look at how local 911 systems can shift to relying on social services personnel to respond to non-violent calls. Police shootings and other violent incidents often stem from calls for “welfare checks” for people having mental health and substance abuse emergencies.

“It just makes sense for us, for all of our communities to be engaging people with the appropriate professional training to respond to these kinds of calls,” Skinner said, “and to reserve our officers for responding to things where there really is a public safety threat.”

Law enforcement associations that have opposed some past transparency measures said they are still reviewing the proposed legislation and cannot comment at this time.

SB 776 and SB 773 are currently in the Assembly. If both houses of the state Legislature pass the proposed laws by the end of August, the bills would then go to the governor for consideration.

"I think that there is much more commitment on the part of the people right now to make sure that those laws are in their strongest form," said Melina Abdullah of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles.

Transparency advocates were hopeful Monday.

“I’m optimistic given the new attention being focused on police misconduct in California and beyond that the Legislature will heed this call for more sunlight in the darkest corners of police agencies around the state,” said David Snyder, executive director of the Bay Area-based First Amendment Coalition, which has filed numerous lawsuits to enforce public access to internal police records.

“Of particular note are the financial penalties for police departments that fail to produce records promptly,” he added. “Our experience over the past year and a half shows this is badly needed.”