California senator pushes to expand police transparency law to include all records of bias

A California senator on Monday introduced two bills, which are aimed at expanding and strengthening a landmark police transparency law by adding a review of all use-of-force records and allegations of bias, as well as reforming the state's 911 system to direct social service calls away from police. 

State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) formally announced SB 776, which would allow the public to view all use of force records, whether they were sustained or not, wrongful arrests and searches.

This bill also proposes for the first time making public records where an officer has engaged in bias or discriminatory behavior. 

Finally, the bill proposes to forbid allowing officers with a history of misconduct to quit their jobs, keep their records secret and "move on to continue their bad behavior in another jurisdiction," Skinner's statement said. 

“Californians have the right to know who is patrolling our streets and who is given the authority to enforce our laws,” Skinner said in a statement. “We must not settle for officers who abuse authority in any way. With expanded public access to police misconduct, SB 776 sends a clear message that racist, discriminatory, and abusive officers are not welcomed in our communities.”

The specific language in the bill would: 

  • Expand access to all records involving police use of force (not just incidents that result in death or great bodily injury), except for frivolous complaints.
  • Expand access to all records involving police dishonesty related to criminal investigations and on-the-job sexual assault (not just complaints that are sustained), excluding frivolous complaints.
  • Provide access to all disciplinary records involving officers who have engaged in racist, homophobic, or anti-Semitic behavior, or actions against any other protected class — again, as long as the complaints are not frivolous.
  • Require access to the above records even when an officer resigns before the agency’s investigation is complete.
  • Provide access to sustained findings of wrongful arrests and wrongful searches.
  • Mandate that an agency, before hiring any candidate who has prior law enforcement experience, to inquire and review the officer’s prior history of complaints, disciplinary hearings, and uses of force.
  • Eliminate the five-year rule on retention of police records.
  • Allow agencies to only charge the public for the direct cost of duplication of records (not the cost of editing and redacting).
  • Add civil fines of $1,000 a day for agencies that fail to release records and punitive damages when an agency is sued for not releasing records or improperly redacting them.

Skinner's original police transparency law, SB 1421, took effect in 2019, and mandated that police disclose personnel records involving sustained allegations in only three categories: When officers lie, engage in sexual assaults and cause bodily injury. 

Police unions throughout California sued to overturn her original law, saying the records should not have to be released retroactively, but all lost their battles in court. 

Skinner's other bill, SB 773, the Community Assistance Response Act, proposes the creation of a task force to address who would be best to respond to a situation: An armed officer or a social worker? 

For example, if a person is having a mental health crisis or a little girl is operating a lemonade stand without a permit, sending a police officer is likely not the right response, Skinner's team said. 

The task force would then make recommendations to the Legislature. 

Last year, the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, which dispatches two-person teams of medics and mental health counselors to nonviolent situations, handled 18% of the 133,000 calls to 911, and only needed police backup on 150 of those calls, Skinner's office pointed out. 

Boston and Oakland are planning to start similar programs, and Alameda County plans to launch its Community Assessment Treatment and Transport Team (CATT) along with Alameda, San Leandro, and Hayward over the course of the next several months. 

This story was reported in Oakland, Calif. Fernandez's spouse works in Skinner's office.