California police should stop fighting new transparency law

Joe Tarica.
Joe Tarica.

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 population, 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 procedural 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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Joe Tarica is the editor of The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. He’s worked in various newsroom roles since 1993, including as an award-winning copy editor, designer and writer of the Joetopia column. A California native, he has been a resident of San Luis Obispo County for more than three decades and is a Cal Poly graduate.