In the 1970s, Los Angeles police officers were furious that past complaints against them increasingly were making their way into court cases.
So LAPD officials did something radical: They took more than four tons of personnel records dating to the 1940s and shredded them.
That decision resulted in the dismissal of more than 100 criminal cases involving officers accused of wrongdoing whose records had been purged, sparking public outrage.
The Legislature responded by passing a law that ensured officer discipline records would be preserved — but also made it nearly impossible for anyone to learn about them. The action, driven by police unions, began a decades-long process that has made California the strictest state in the nation when it comes to protecting police confidentiality.
That could change in the next few weeks, with lawmakers in Sacramento considering a landmark effort to increase disclosure.
One cop came forward to expose secrets in his own ranks. The revelation rocked the court system.
Repeated efforts to open access to misconduct records have run into aggressive opposition from the unions, one of the most powerful political forces in the Capitol and city halls around the state. Lawmakers who championed transparency faced threats of union opposition at election time.
Police unions repeatedly have argued that California’s confidentiality rules protect officer safety and privacy — and prevent cops’ names from being dragged through the mud.
But this year, a group of California legislators is confronting police unions in ways once unthinkable. They argue the organizations are out of touch with public sentiment over how officers use force and interact with communities of color. The shift comes amid the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform movements.
“It’s hard to build trust … when police keep secret how they respond to killing members of the public and hide serious misconduct,” said Peter Bibring, director of police practices at the American Civil Liberties Union of California.
The latest proposal to make some misconduct records public faces a key decision in the Legislature this week. While passage is far from assured, some union leaders privately are conceding that a measure of disclosure might be inevitable.
Robert Harris, a director for the union that represents rank-and-file LAPD officers, said high-profile videos capturing police using force — and the protests that followed — have put his side on the defensive.
“We’re kind of at the table trying to work with them, not because of the validity of their arguments but because we’re watching this movement create some hostility in our communities,” Harris said. “The profession of law enforcement is under siege.”
No other state has locked away citizen complaints and internal investigation files like California.
Records of misconduct that results in suspensions and other significant discipline are public in 21 states. Only California, Delaware and New York have specially enshrined confidentiality laws that single out police disciplinary files. California is alone in denying prosecutors direct access to the records.
A Times investigation found that past misconduct, whether alleged or proven, routinely is kept hidden in court as a result of California’s police privacy laws.
The road to secrecy began in 1974, when the California Supreme Court ruled that defendants had a right to know about complaints that had been lodged against officers testifying in their cases. Defense attorneys started asking for information that might cast doubt on officers’ testimony.
It was during the barrage of requests that the LAPD destroyed complaints dating to 1949 that hadn’t resulted in a finding of wrongdoing. The leader of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, or PORAC — the state’s largest law enforcement labor organization — complained that criminal defendants could now “embark on fishing expeditions into peace officers’ personnel files.”
In 1978, state Atty. Gen. Evelle Younger sponsored the legislation that required departments to keep misconduct records but also expressly blocked public access and made it much more difficult to view them in criminal court.
Under the bill, defendants would have to persuade a judge to examine an officer’s confidential file, in private, and decide if there was relevant information to disclose.
The Legislature passed the measure unanimously, sending it to Gov. Jerry Brown, then in his first term, who signed it.
Later that year, after Brown won reelection, his chief of staff credited law enforcement as one of most significant endorsements that led to his victory.
After the law took effect, a slice of police misconduct records remained available to the public.
In Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and other major cities, civil service commissions or police review boards considered officer discipline issues in open hearings. In 2006, the California Supreme Court ruled that the confidentiality law also applied to those hearings.