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A push for Calif. police accountability, transparency

By Charlene Muhammad -National Correspondent- | Last updated: May 30, 2018 - 9:46:54 AM

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LOS ANGELES—A coalition of grassroots activists and families of police violence victims are celebrating progress of a bill that would modify existing law and give Californians access to records about deadly police shootings and use of force as well as officers’ misconduct history, including sexual assault and lying.

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Senate Bill 1421 to release public records passed out of the Appropriations Committee, which evaluates costs and some amendments on May 25.  One change clarified that the bill has nothing to do with granting information usually reserved for judges, prosecutors and parties’ attorneys to the public. The bill allows 18 months for information to be released under Public Records Act requests. Another amendment clarified that in discovery phases of cases, a judge has power to determine when records can be seen to avoid putting investigations or prosecutions in jeopardy.

The bill will now go to the full Senate floor for a vote and then to the State Assembly.

“I’m extremely, extremely happy. It’s been a long time coming because all of the bills I’ve been standing behind dies in Appropriations,” said Cephus “Uncle Bobby” Johnson.

Laws that push police accountability have been a struggle, even trying to get the Citizens Review Board for the Bay Area Rapid Transit District after an officer killed his nephew Oscar Grant, III. on a station platform on Jan 1, 2009, he added.

The activist is looking forward to the Senate floor vote and believes the coalition’s 100-person lobby day efforts are crucial to getting it passed. It gave an opportunity for impacted families to share their perspective with various senators and touch them emotionally, and for groups like the American Civil Liberties Union to make elements of the bill very clear, Mr. Johnson said.

“I think the family impact had a lot to do with actually opening up hearts, opening up eyes and ears to this issue and the fact that we’ve seen it so much on videos, Youtube, cell phones, and the fact that even Trump himself is exposing the heinous acts of these agencies, that there needs to be some more regulations, legislation put in place to control their actions and also  hold them accountable,” Mr. Johnson stated.

The Youth Justice Coalition is co-sponsoring the bill, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, PICO California, Black Lives Matter, the Anti-Police Terror Project, and others, according to Kim McGill, executive director of the Youth Justice Coalition, which advocates for incarcerated young people and their parents.

“A couple of years ago, many of us tried to work on a similar bill (SB 1286), and it was crushed, so this is a second attempt to try to do a real change to this,” said Ms. McGill.

Professions like doctors, child daycares, schools, and contractors require public access to their records, Ms. McGill argued. But for law enforcement, even when there is sexual misconduct with a civilian or use of force resulting in homicides or other serious bodily injury, or misconduct resulting in fraud or misuse of funds, their records are totally sealed, she stated.

Democratic Senator Nancy Skinner of Berkeley introduced new language for the bill in early April.  Existing law shields reports on officer misconduct from the public and hiring agencies. That erodes public trust, and can allow officers with repeated incidents of serious misconduct to bounce from agency-to-agency, undetected, said Sen. Skinner.

“Building trust between police and communities has to start with transparency,” said Sen. Skinner.

People must put a lot of pressure on Gov. Jerry Brown to sign the bill, because all lawmakers are worried about is what law enforcement thinks, said Ms. McGill.

In addition, Appropriations Committee Chair and Democratic state senator Ricardo Lara is running for Insurance Commissioner and gets a lot of campaign endorsements and contributions from law enforcement, Ms. McGill told The Final Call.

“Law enforcement unions are very opposed to this bill, of course, and this is the first time that other unions are actually standing up in support,” she stated. Unions shunned taking action against their cop counterparts, even when their own members were at risk, so their stand marks an historic moment, she added.

The grassroots organizations are also co-sponsoring Assembly Bill 931, which would require police to justify use of deadly force by showing the immediate threat to them or anyone else’s life that couldn’t be resolved by non-lethal methods.

Blacks in Law Enforcement of America supports the “Police Accountability and Community Protection Act” proposed by Democratic Assembly members Kevin McCarty of Sacramento and Shirley Weber of San Diego.  “A lot of things that the public don’t know is law enforcement is trained to justify their actions in writing, whether they’re wrong or right,” said Damon K. Jones, New York representative of Blacks in Law Enforcement.

Until cell phone video cameras, officers for decades have been able to justify their actions through writing, particularly when subjects died and there were no witnesses, he said.

“We’re taught that in the academy, how to justify our actions. There are certain words you can use, certain phrases. You gave an order to comply and they’re not complying, and now with video tapes, you see officers say, ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting,’ but actually, the guy is not resisting.  He’s just laying there and that’s a tactic,” Mr. Jones told The Final Call.

Other code words to justify deadly force are “gun” and “feared for my life,” he added. 

The bill, if passed, could be a big game changer.

“I think the law is a good law, and I hope it passes and will set a standard for other states to really look at it,” said Mr. Jones. 

Blacks in Law Enforcement proposed something similar in July 2015, according to Mr. Jones. But they took it a step further and labeled the bill the “Police Criminality Law.”

It called for defining police criminality by law, required officers to intercede when they witness use of force violations by other officers, and create a statewide independent unit to investigate alleged police criminality.

According to Mr. Jones, nothing came of the effort. “We couldn’t get politicians to back it, because they were scared to be called anti-police,” Mr. Jones stated. 

“Everything a law enforcement officer does is paid by the taxpayers, his training, his paycheck, and if he goes and violates policies and procedures, knowingly, and has caused a death, he should be brought up on criminal charges. It shouldn’t be no ifs, ands or buts about it!” added the New York corrections officer.