"The Brotherhood" — members of California’s various police and law enforcement unions — showed up in force at the California Assembly’s Public Safety Committee hearing Tuesday morning in Sacramento. There were perhaps hundreds of them in attendance — mostly big, burly white men, dressed typically in sport coats that were emblazoned with pins from the cop agencies and government unions they represent. Quite frankly, they strutted around like they owned the place, which is pretty accurate given that they basically do own most of the legislators.
The front rows of seats in the audience at the committee are reserved for legislators and are occasionally used by their staff. But Tuesday, while the committee considered a Senate-passed proposal that would allow the public to learn about police officers who are disciplined for abusing their power or breaking the law, those seats each were reserved with a notebook piece of paper stating, "For guests of Chairman Solorio." Jose Solorio is the Santa Ana Democrat who chairs the committee and he held those seats for his special, invited guests — various law enforcement lobbyists.
The legislation at issue was Senate Bill 1019, which would overturn a state Supreme Court decision last year that destroyed the state’s longtime policy of openness by granting all law enforcement a special layer of police-state-like secrecy when it comes to police wrongdoing. Previously, Speaker Fabian Nuñez — who, ironically, had made strong public comments criticizing police tactics and misbehavior after the Los Angeles Police Department thuggishly cleared MacArthur Park after immigration protests May 1 — had removed from the committee Mark Leno, the San Francisco Democrat who supports police oversight, and failed to replace him. Perhaps symbolically, one member of a diverse group supporting the bill tried to sit in one of the reserved seats but was shooed away.
And, so, before the meeting even started, anyone paying close attention to the room’s dynamics could see that the fix was in. Leno was gone, the cop lobbyists sat in the front as special guests. Solorio, at the behest of both parties’ leadership, shoved public concerns out of the way for the benefit of one influential interest group. That group’s members were cocky about this win, as the cops sitting around me laughed and joked as supporters of the bill told their stories. "Get a haircut," one of them said rather loudly to some laughter as a pony-tailed backer of the bill explained his support for it.
It wasn’t funny to me, but this level of disrespect for the public summed up the entire meeting. This was as close an example in Sacramento of a vote as one will find pitting the public’s interest against a particular interest group. Sacramento watchers shouldn’t be surprised that the special interest won.
It’s a hallmark of a free society that government officials, especially those who have life-and-death power over others, need to be held accountable. For decades, there was at least a system of open records in dealing with abusive officers. All government employees face public disclosure of their on-the-job misbehavior. All members of the public face public disclosure after they are, say, arrested — before a conviction or acquittal is granted. Yet law enforcement, after last year’s decision, gets a pass. An officer can mistakenly arrest you, can beat you, can even kill you and then the public (including victims and their families) will learn nothing about the investigation or whether that officer is disciplined. The public now is forbidden from learning about the background of officers who repeatedly use excessive force.
"Ultimately, this bill is about the public’s right to know, about the public’s ability to hold government accountable," said Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero, a liberal Democrat and author of SB1019. In a previous statement, the conservative Sen. Tom McClintock, a Thousand Oaks Republican and a co-sponsor, agreed: "The police exercise the ultimate of official power — and that ought to be tempered by the ultimate of public scrutiny. Unfortunately, because of a combination of bad law and a bad court decision the police have the least public scrutiny."
Terry Francke, speaking briefly on behalf of his First Amendment organization, called California Aware, said, appropriately, that "no other organization insists on total secrecy for the worst among them." At the hearing, the mother of a girl killed when a police chase went awry, explained: "Things should be found out. What they do wrong should be corrected. The way things are now, we will never know [what happened]." Exactly. Organizations cannot oversee themselves. Free societies err on the side of openness, because openness leads to justice and to improved policies. No one wants additional oversight for themselves — certainly not members of a government union — but that’s where legislators need to step in and put the public first.
Solorio gave a bizarre, rambling speech complaining about the rapper Ice-T, about rap-music lyrics in general, worrying about the effect of open government on police recruitment efforts and claiming that police already are vilified by the public. (Actually, they seem to be treated like heroes and given every benefit of the doubt and every possible protection, but that’s an argument for another day.) He then offered Sen. Romero the chance to withdraw her bill. She defiantly refused and demanded a vote. None of the committee members had the guts to offer a motion to vote on the bill. They all sat around looking po-faced, and then the bill, for all intents and purposes, died. It was an act of cowardice by Solorio and his fellow members. "We come to Sacramento to vote, not remain silent," Romero rightly complained.
The arguments from Solorio and the cop lobby were mostly deceitful. Opponents claimed that the bill went too far. Yet Romero and her supporters amended the bill so it didn’t go nearly as far as the original. SB1019 would let municipalities decide whether or not to have open disciplinary hearings, and it created a special protection by allowing a police chief to allow certain information to be secret because of its sensitive nature. The chairman claimed that he didn’t like the bill because it allowed cities to set their own standards and that he preferred a statewide standard. Yet Solorio opposed the previous bill also, which included those exact standards he now said he wants. Welcome to Alice in Wonderland, where words don’t mean anything in particular, but rather are spin to excuse a preordained conclusion.
As far as wanting more amendments, a frustrated Romero told the committee: "I introduced this bill months and months and months ago. Not one amendment has ever been offered to me. Not one paragraph, not one sentence, not one word, not one syllable." What was offered from two leading police organizations: a direct threat to legislators that the groups would oppose term-limits reform (that’s hitting below the belt, given that legislators desperately want to stay in office longer) if this legislation ever becomes law.
What is it they fear? The Orange County Sheriff’s Department was represented at the hearing, and opposed the legislation, as was the Orange County District Attorney’s Office. Ironically, opponents argued that SB1019 isn’t needed because cities already have civilian oversight of law enforcement. Yet O.C.’s sheriff and D.A. also testified at the county Board of Supervisors meeting in opposition to civilian review.
They don’t call it the Secrecy Lobby for nothing.
What a disgusting outcome. In a free society, the law should tilt in favor of oversight, in favor of the public’s right to know. In all the discussions at the hearing, the voice missing from the debate, Romero pointed out, was the public’s. "The people were absent."
Our voice is still missing, but it’s never too late to raise it.