Contra Costa Co. police unions temporarily block access to personnel records

By Bay City News Service

At least for now, six law enforcement agencies in Contra Costa County do not have to release police personnel records following a legal challenge to a transparency law that went into effect Jan. 1. 

Senate Bill 1421 was passed by the California legislature last year and was signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown. 

Before then, California's laws shielded police personnel records from public view. SB 1421, also known as the Right to Know Act, requires certain types of those records to be made public.

Law enforcement agencies are now required to turn over personnel records related to use of force, sexual assault, and officer dishonesty. 

Attorneys for police unions are arguing that the law shouldn't apply retroactively - meaning only documents for incidents that occur after Jan. 1, 2019, are subject to disclosure. 

"We believe the case law is very, very strong in our favor... if it doesn't say it's retroactive, it's not retroactive," said Rocky Lucia, an attorney with Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver, who is representing six law enforcement unions in Contra Costa County. 

But attorneys with the ACLU say that's a "red herring" argument, as the law was supposed to open up records from any time frame.

"The law was intended to, and does, make existing records available to the public," Kathleen Guneratne, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California, said. "We think this is just an attempt by the police unions to undermine an overwhelmingly popular law that's key to transparency." 

Guneratne said police transparency is especially important to people of color whose family members have been on the receiving end of police violence. 

"All this law does is make two categories of sustained findings of misconduct public, as they are in many other professions," she said. "There is absolutely no reason that the public should not know about that."

But Lucia argued that police officers are able to hold themselves accountable and don't need more scrutiny. 

"All of these cops, whether they committed any one of those acts or not, they have a right to have those personnel records be confidential," Lucia said. 

Lucia is representing the police unions in Richmond, Antioch, Concord, Martinez and Walnut Creek, as well as Contra Costa County. A judge ordered temporary restraining orders against all those agencies, asking them not to release records, at least for now. 

Another more in-depth hearing is scheduled for Feb. 8.