Police transparency law is shielding bad cops — and state lawmakers need to fix it

In California, records of police misconduct have been a closely guarded secret — until now.

A new state law is supposed to give the news media access to police personnel records under certain circumstances, including when there is a “sustained finding” of sexual assault or dishonesty committed by a police officer.

Senate Bill 1421 is a step forward for California, but it’s not strong enough to compel the release of information in some cases.

That’s why The Tribune has has joined with KSBY-TV during Sunshine Week — when newsrooms across the nation advocate for greater government transparency — to urge state lawmakers to commit to strengthening the law.

This has particular relevance in San Luis Obispo County, where the case of a disgraced former Paso Robles police sergeant is reinforcing the need to hold public safety officials accountable.

Former Sgt. Christopher McGuire was accused of raping a woman he first met when responding to a call of suspected domestic abuse; sexual contact between the two was confirmed when DNA testing found his sperm on the floor of the woman’s garage.

The San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office investigated and recommended filing charges. However, the District Attorney’s Office concluded there was not sufficient evidence to prosecute former Sgt. Christopher McGuire — which meant the allegations would never see the light of day in a criminal courtroom.

That’s where Senate Bill 1421 should come in to ensure the public knows what transpired. But it didn’t work as intended.

Both The Tribune and KSBY made independent, formal requests for the records of the investigation into McGuire’s conduct. Both were denied.

When the two news organization joined to protest the decision, we were rebuffed again, by both the county and the city of Paso Robles.

The reason for the denials? The county said it was Paso Robles’ responsibility to release the records.

And Paso denied the request because it had made no “sustained finding” of sexual misconduct. That’s because McGuire resigned before the Paso Robles department conducted an investigation into whether any department policy had been violated.

How convenient.

There was enough evidence to warrant turning the case over to the Sheriff’s Office for a criminal investigation, but because McGuire quit, the Police Department never had to reveal a thing about serious allegations that, even if not proven criminal, certainly could merit discipline up to and including termination.

“Respectfully, this position makes a mockery of Senate Bill 1421 and exalts the interests of those who commit sexual assaults over the interests of the public and taxpayers,” Karl Olson, an attorney representing The Tribune and KSBY, wrote in response to the county denial. “Essentially, the county’s position seems to be that an officer can escape any public accountability for the most egregious acts and abuse of power, simply by resigning.”

Fortunately, Tribune reporter Matt Fountain obtained a leaked copy of a report written by the sheriff’s investigator. It included outrageous allegations involving multiple women.

In addition to the rape accusation, McGuire was investigated for having consensual sex with another woman while on duty — sometimes in his police car. He also was accused of coercing yet another woman into exposing her breasts by threatening her with arrest.

If not for the document leaked to The Tribune, none of this would have been made public, casting a spotlight on a giant loophole in SB 1421.

The good news is, it should not be hard to fix: The state Legislature must add language to SB 1421 that would obligate police agencies to release records when an officer accused of sexual assault involving a member of the public resigns before a department has concluded its investigation.

Otherwise, what prevents disgraced officers from simply quitting to block the release of records affirming egregious misconduct?

And if they are allowed to quietly resign, what prevents them from moving on to another position of authority?

That’s one of the biggest reasons transparency matters. It can also point out inherent weaknesses that need addressing.

To close the loophole, The Tribune and KSBY asked Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham to support and seek a legislative fix to SB 1421, adding language that will hold unscrupulous law enforcement officers responsible for their behavior.

The assemblyman agreed with the reasoning and is already working toward an improvement in the legislation.

“We’ve got a loophole, I think, that needs to be closed,” he told The Tribune and KSBY in an interview on Tuesday. “And I’ll be working with the sponsor of the bill and the author of the bill .... to narrow the scope of the bill a little bit. ... Something like the McGuire case highlights perfectly a loophole in the law that wasn’t intended.”

At the same time, Cunningham has introduced a bill that would make it a crime for a police officer or public official to coerce a person to engage in unwanted sexual contact.

“It is a horrible situation, and some of the alleged conduct may not be covered under existing law,” Cunningham said of the McGuire case, adding that his bill “will specifically criminalize sexual assault committed by the improper use of someone’s law enforcement authority.”

Together, Cunningham’s bill and an amendment to SB 1421 would go a long way to better holding rogue law enforcement officers accountable for unacceptable conduct.

In some cases, that could mean criminal charges where none now exist. In others, it it will ensure that bad cops can’t step down from their positions with their records sealed, free to offend again somewhere else.

The Tribune strongly applauds Cunningham’s swift action on these two points and calls for all California lawmakers to support the much-needed improvements to state law.

Law enforcement is too noble a cause — one filled with many hard-working, upstanding officers — to allow the misdeeds of a few to repeatedly tarnish its mission and reputation.

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