Crime & Justice

5 ways police shooting investigations could become more transparent

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With the police shooting of an unarmed young black man once again on the front pages, California State Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) Tuesday introduced a bill that would mandate the public release of police investigations into officer shootings and other serious uses of force. 

California law currently prohibits the release of any information related to a police officer’s personnel file. That includes investigations into officer shootings or other serious uses of force.

Here are five things you would learn if SB 1421 passes the state legislature and is signed into law by the governor.

1.  Whether a police shooting or serious use of force was deemed justified by a police chief or sheriff.

Right now, only a few departments in California say whether an officer acted within policy when he or she decided to use deadly force. The LAPD is one of them. The L.A. Police Commission, which oversees the department, releases both the chief’s recommendation and its final determination of whether an officer followed policy.

2.  Whether the officer was disciplined.

The information would include which policies the officer violated, if any, and what kind of disciplined he or she faced. Under court rulings, the names of officers and sheriff’s deputies involved in shootings already must be made public.

3.  The full extent of an investigation into a police shooting or serious use of force. 

Under the bill, police would be required to release all of the records related to such incidents. That would include investigator’s reports, statements by officers and witnesses and documentation of evidence. Right now, that information is only given out to victims of police shootings who face criminal charges as a result of the shooting or who file a civil lawsuit alleging excessive use of force.

4.  Which officers were found by department investigators to have engaged in sexual assault.

The public would also have access to all records relating to sexual assaults involving coercion or exchanging sex for leniency in a law enforcement matter.

5.  Which officers were found by department investigators to have engaged in lying, planting evidence or falsifying records.

Powerful police union lobbies have defeated similar bills in the past – often arguing they threaten officer safety.

This time around, the issue is more fraught. Sacramento has been the scene of a number of angry protests over the fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man - Stephan Clarke.

Skinner is optimistic the bill will pass.

"Building trust between police and communities has to start with transparency," she said. 

"The vast majority of our law enforcement officers have excellent records," said Skinner.  "SB 1421 will help us hold accountable the few bad actors and build greater community trust in law enforcement."

Craig Lally, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers, said his group has not yet had a chance to review Skinner's bill.