Po­lice should stop fight­ing new ac­cess law

The Tribune (SLO) (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY JOE TARICA jtar­[email protected]­bune­news.com

As of Jan. 1, news or­ga­ni­za­tions across Cal­i­for­nia have a po­ten­tially pow­er­ful new tool to hold law en­force­ment agen­cies ac­count­able for the be­hav­ior of their of­fi­cers.

For the first time, a new state law can com­pel them to re­lease in­for­ma­tion about crit­i­cal po­lice in­ci­dents that in the past may have been shielded from pub­lic view.

The law cov­ers three par­tic­u­lar ar­eas: of­fi­cer-in­volved shoot­ings or us­ing force that causes death or great bod­ily in­jury; cases of sex­ual as­sault on a mem­ber of the pub­lic; and dis­hon­esty when in­ves­ti­gat­ing a crime or mis­con­duct by an­other of­fi­cer.

Up un­til now, Cal­i­for­nia law has sided with po­lice over the pub­lic, giv­ing an en­tire pro­fes­sion cover for any mis­deeds.

If an of­fi­cer abused his or her author­ity, up to and in­clud­ing grave al­le­ga­tions like rape or man­slaugh­ter, agen­cies could with­hold their in­ves­ti­ga­tions and find­ings, out­side of for­mal charges and a trial.

Of­ten­times in these cases, they’d come to ad­min­is­tra­tive con­clu­sions that re­sult in the dis­missal of of­fend­ing of­fi­cers — all be­hind closed doors.

Re­porters — work­ing on be­half of the pub­lic — don’t see the in­ter­nal doc­u­ments, in­ves­ti­ga­tions and con­clu­sions. In­for­ma­tion is lim­ited to ru­mors. If the in­ci­dents are not well-doc­u­mented or sub­ject to nondis­clo­sure set­tle­ments, the un­scrupu­lous of­fi­cers move on un­der

the shroud of se­crecy to new jobs some­where else.

This new law aims to turn that paradigm on its head, but only if it is ap­plied the way it was in­tended.

The prob­lem is, that’s not as easy as it should be.

From the start, law en­force­ment agen­cies and po­lice unions have been tak­ing steps to ham­string the law.

Ear­lier this week, the Los An­ge­les Times re­ported on mul­ti­ple agen­cies that have un­der­taken a sud­den in­ter­est in shred­ding old doc­u­ments, and po­lice unions are fil­ing law­suits ar­gu­ing the law should not be en­forced retroac­tively, as though only fu­ture bad be­hav­ior is worth re­veal­ing.

Let’s be blunt: This is a bad look for po­lice.

Ei­ther you are up­stand­ing de­fend­ers of the law who live by the high­est code of con­duct ... or you are not.

When you try to cover up mis­deeds or dodge ac­count­abil­ity, you fail to live up to your oath. You are look­ing out for your­self or your col­leagues.

It goes with­out say­ing that we don’t want to be overly broad here. And no doubt, it’s a painful time for law en­force­ment in Cal­i­for­nia, in the wake of the killings of two young of­fi­cers: Natalie Corona of Davis on Thurs­day and Cpl. Ronil Singh of New­man on Dec. 26.

The vast ma­jor­ity in law en­force­ment com­mit to up­hold­ing high ideals, and they do so ev­ery day.

But like any large pop- ula­tion, it’s in­evitable that some small num­ber are unfit for this re­spon­si­bil­ity.

Then, when other up­stand­ing mem­bers are will­ing to make ex­cuses or pre­vent real over­sight of their col­leagues, the en­tire pro­fes­sion loses.

As a me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tion, we ap­plaud trans­parency laws like this. And we have al­ready filed for more records in the case of Christo­pher McGuire, the dis­graced for­mer Paso Robles sergeant who was ac­cused of rape and sex­ual mis­con­duct.

This is a per­fect case for the new law, one in which the District At­tor­ney’s Of­fice didn’t have suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence to pur­sue charges but which clearly in­volved enough bona fide mis­con­duct that McGuire was forced out.

Yet, our first re­quest to the county was de­nied (hope­fully only for proce- du­ral rea­sons), and early word around Cal­i­for­nia is that the re­jec­tions are al­ready rolling in, of­ten due to the ques­tion of whether the law can be ap­plied retroac­tively.

That’s not ac­cept­able, and the courts would best re­solve any is­sues promptly, so that the peo­ple of Cal­i­for­nia can be pro­vided the in­for­ma­tion they are now legally en­ti­tled to see.

As for po­lice de­part­ments and unions, stop play­ing hide-and-seek with the truth and get on the right side of this with­out fur­ther tar­nish­ing your rep­u­ta­tion.

It may seem ob­vi­ous, but if you live by a code of honor and duty, you have noth­ing to worry about.

If not? Watch out.

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