Starting next year, Californians will have access to certain records relating to police misconduct and serious use of force — records that have been sealed in this state for four decades.

At the eleventh hour on Sunday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law SB 1421, a bill authored by East Bay Sen. Nancy Skinner that will require law-enforcement agencies to turn over certain police personnel records on request. For example, the public can request the records of a named officer and any incidents related to the officer that involve the discharge of a firearm, use of force resulting in death or great bodily injury, on-the-job sexual assault, and dishonesty in reporting or investigating a crime.

“SB 1421 busted through 40 years of laws and court rulings that left California as one of the most secretive states” regarding police misconduct records, Skinner told Mission Local in September, after the bill cleared both houses of the legislature.

The bill becoming law does, indeed, break a decades-long trend of law-enforcement officers’ personnel records being increasingly shielded from public view. It began with a 1978 California law — signed by the very same Gov. Brown — that required law enforcement agencies to preserve misconduct records. Yet the law greatly restricted the access to them. Even prosecutors, whose cases relied on credible testimony from police officers, were largely denied access.

Police misconduct became yet more opaque in 2006, when the California Supreme Court ruled that officer disciplinary proceedings undertaken by civilian oversight commissions — such as the San Francisco Police Commission — could no longer be held in public. (Mission Local recently drew on pre-2006 Police Commission records to report on past misconduct by officers accused of harassment and homophobia on the job in 2018.)

Since then, California lawmakers have attempted multiple times to make the records accessible once more: once by former Sen. Gloria Romero and twice by former Sen. Mark Leno. 

Leno told Mission Local that when he first tried to reverse the 2006 decision, he and his colleagues “incurred the wrath of law-enforcement groups up and down the state, and leadership was not interested in seeing it happen.” The bill died in committee.

Then, in 2016, as the #BlackLivesMatter movement built momentum, Leno introduced another bill aimed at opening police misconduct records under certain conditions. That, too, failed in committee. “My assessment at the time was accurate, but a bit too early,” Leno said, noting that opposing arguments that the law would be putting officers and their families at risk were largely emotional and “not based in fact.”

But, “Thanks to Senator Skinner and her relentless effort, she was able to take it the last few yards,” he said. “The idea’s time had come.”

Skinner partly attributed the bill’s success to the fact that it was narrower than either Leno or Romero’s. Also, protests stemming from the March shooting of Stephon Clark, an unarmed African American man shot by Sacramento police while he was in his own backyard, may also have helped to stoke support for the bill. “Obviously the outcry in Sacramento did assist my colleagues to have more openness,” Skinner said.

Asked whether he thought Clark’s death helped the bill’s chances, Leno said: “Unfortunately, too many people had to die for this bill to become law.”

SFPD Chief Bill Scott declined to comment on whether this bill may help improve his department’s relationship with the public.

Instead, SFPD spokesman Officer Robert Rueca said: “We often look at ways to strengthen trust and build stronger relationships with the community. At this stage we have not determined how the new proposed legislation will change that.”

Rueca added that a new policy will have to be created for members of the public hoping to view misconduct records. He could not immediately say how long the department retains such records.

San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi, meanwhile, viewed the new law as groundbreaking. “This will forever change the way in which police officer misconduct investigations are conducted and made available to the public,” he said. “As it is now, we receive no information, even where complaints have been sustained.”

At it currently stands, Adachi said, his office will receive a letter from the Department of Police Accountability, a city agency that investigates complaints made by citizens against officers, only notifying the public defender that an investigation is complete and whether a complaint has been sustained. The subject of that complaint, astoundingly, is not listed. “You don’t even find out what happened,” Adachi bemoaned.

But now, Adachi said, the law “would require that the information will be made available to … not just our agencies, but the public.”

That’s how it works elsewhere. Adachi pointed to an online database of Chicago police officers with a history of misconduct, which is maintained by the Invisible Institute, a journalistic government accountability project. “I would expect we’ll see something similar,” he said.

LaDoris Cordell, a retired Superior Court judge who served as an independent auditor of the San Jose Police Department, believes SB 1421 is a needed corrective against the excessive degree of privacy California police officers have long benefited from.

“The misconduct of lawyers, judges, medical doctors, and psychologists, as well as their discipline, is information available to the public,” she wrote to Mission Local in an email. “I have long argued that the double standard applied to law enforcement is wrong. SB 1421 is an important first step in righting that wrong. … Indeed, the secrecy has contributed mightily to the public’s distrust and fear of law enforcement.”  

The new law was accompanied by a raft of other police accountability laws introduced against the backdrop of a nationwide outcry over police impunity with regard to use of force.

Brown on Sunday also signed Assemblyman Phil Ting’s AB 748, which requires law-enforcement agencies to release body-camera footage within 45 days of a deadly or serious use-of-force incident, unless it would interfere with an ongoing investigation. (The SFPD has already made it a practice to release body-camera footage of a police shooting, usually within 10 days, at a community meeting.)

Yet other legislation, like Assemblywoman Shirley Weber’s AB 931, an aggressive reform bill that would have required officers to exhaust all other reasonable alternatives before using deadly force, died in the Senate, amid an aggressive lobbying effort by state law enforcement unions.