ACLU seeks police transparency, accountability on behalf of 12 families through new California law

A new California law went into effect at the beginning of the year that allows for release of previously sealed police documents.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is now making a request on behalf of 12 different families in the case of eight different police shootings through the Peace Officers: Release of Records law, also known as SB 1421. 

This Friday, ACLU Northern California senior staff attorney Kathleen Guneratne joined us on set for a live interview on The 4, along with Stephon Clark’s aunt Jamila Land and Oscar Grant’s uncle, Cephus "Uncle Bobby" Johnson. Clark was shot and killed by Sacramento police in 2018. Grant was killed by BART police in 2009.

Both Clark and Grant's cases are included in the ACLU's records request. Guneratne as well as Clark and Grant's relatives say the new law is about creating more police department transparency and accountability. 

"Transparency is the first step to accountability," Guneratne said. “We believe it’s important to get these records so that families have answers. For the first time in decades there is an opportunity under SB 1421 to get families, whose loved ones have been killed by the police answers about the quality of the investigation that the police did into the murders and killings of their loved ones.” 

Johnson said he’s looking to get closure from these records after already having gone through the criminal trial of former BART officer Johannes Mehserle. 

Mehserle pulled his service weapon and shot and killed Grant on BART's Fruitvale station platform on New Year's Day, saying he had mistaken his gun for a Taser. He was later convicted of involuntary manslaughter and was released after serving about half of his two-year sentence. Mehserle was given credit for good conduct in jail.

“He actually murdered my nephew, Oscar Grant. It actually brings a form of healing. This information provides a way of us being able to see what we’ve been saying all these years, whether it was true or not,” Johnson said. “Had [SB] 1421 been in existence, back in 2010 when we were in trial, it would have helped the jury make a better decision." 

“For me it’s important, not just as a citizen, but as a member of a unique community," Land said. "Like Uncle Bobby said, it’s important for these families to have healing.” 

Land cites the case of the Golden State Killer as an example of why these types of information requests are necessary. 

“Here we have a police officer that was in our communities raping and killing for over 40 years…who had the ability to go between different police departments in the state of California. If we had access to these types of records—that community of families could have been saved a lot grief as well," Land said. “When our loved one’s lives are taken by the police they are often times criminalized. The first thing that comes out is their history. The fact that these officers have been able to hide behind the ‘Blue Wall’ we’ll say, has been unfair to the community to that they are supposed to be protecting and serving.” 

“For far too long, communities of color have born the disproportionate brunt of systemic police violence and police brutality,” said Guneratne. 

Under the new law, they are making requests of not only the police investigations in these cases, but also the disciplinary records of all officers involved.  

“People will be able to see and evaluate the quality of the investigation. I think we all have a right to know the quality of the investigation the government is doing into its officers who kill members of our community,” Guneratne said. “That information is critical for people to know to have faith in law enforcement.” 

Guneratne said one of the first records to be disclosed under the new law was in Burlingame. Those records pertained to an officer who had an allegation of attempted sexual assault. Because Burlingame disclosed those records, she said the San Mateo district attorney is now considering re-opening an investigation into that officer because the newly released records documented a pattern of misconduct on the officer’s part with multiple accusers.