Dozens of California police agencies have teamed with criminal justice-based unions and special interest groups to oppose legislation changing a state Supreme Court ruling barring public access to police disciplinary hearings.
This grew from a 2003 dispute between the San Diego Union-Tribune and the attorneys representing a fired deputy sheriff. The deputy fought the newspaper's attempts to witness an administrative appeals procedure on his behalf.
The paper went to court after it was denied permission to attend the hearing and fought back by filing suit. In 2006, the Supreme Court handed down an opinion that the public had no overriding need to know what transpires during such proceedings. The effect on public bodies has been interesting -- many that allowed public or news media access to these procedures changed their positions and closed the proceedings.
Meanwhile, back in the state legislature, Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, filed SB1019, which would allow individual municipalities to decide for themselves whether or not to permit outside parties access to the material presented in this type of hearing. The bill died as a result of opposition from police and correctional groups. It drew support from some of the state's heaviest-hitters in law enforcement circles, many municipalities and news organizations, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union.
I believe police should be all about openness whenever possible. Law enforcement and related professions such as corrections are held to a higher standard than the public when it comes to some things. A police officer arrested for drunk driving is, in most jurisdictions, someone without a job. There are very few professions that can take a person's livelihood away for transgressions that would be tolerated in other professions, but law enforcement officers with minor run-ins with the law can and do lose their certification. That, in my opinion, is the way it should be. Any other outcome is clearly hypocritical.
That said, I think the disciplinary process in a jurisdiction should be as open as practicable, but I do not think Romero's bill is completely on the mark. My concern is not hiding information from the public, but handing poorly understood information to the press. Let me explain.
Here's a common scenario officers may face: A man with a knife advances on an officer. The officer commands the armed individual to drop the knife or face being shot. When the man fails to surrender the knife, the officer fires and seriously wounds or kills the armed man.
More than likely, the officer erred on the side of allowing the individual to get closer than he should have before firing. No matter what the television representation, it is a rare officer who would choose to kill a human being. But the public will ask why the officer couldn't have simply wounded the man or fired a warning shot?
Sound familiar? It's what happens every time there's a shooting incident. The public, the majority of whom do not fully understand deadly force, believe police should shoot to warn, wing or scare people. This is because the public does not fully grasp the mechanics of such a deadly encounter. It is this that gives me pause when looking at Romero's bill.
While I thoroughly endorse the need for openness, particularly when police have erred, I also believe there is a great margin here for misconception. And I think that misconception will be played out in tabloid fashion by the media, damning good officers for doing their jobs the right way.
I also believe that this door, when opened, will create an atmosphere conducive to lawsuits that will eventually cost the taxpayers more than they realize. My take on this bill -- nice sentiment, but it shouldn't happen.