Our Backyard: California's Police Secrecy Laws Need Reform

California laws shielding the identity of troublesome cops are among the nation’s strictest. That’s bad for all involved.


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During a Sept. 7 press conference at City Hall, Mayor Libby Schaaf announced that her administration had decided to fire four Oakland police officers and suspend seven others for their roles in a sex abuse case involving a young woman who used to go by her online name Celeste Guap. It’s been the worst police scandal in the East Bay in years, but the mayor could not reveal the names of the cops involved.

Why? California has some of the strictest laws in the nation when it comes to protecting the identities of police engaged in wrongdoing.

Schaaf, who has made restoring police-community relations a priority of her administration, is not happy with California’s secrecy laws. “It’s been extremely frustrating to not be able to be further transparent with the public on something of such high importance,” she said in an interview.

Schaaf was actually more transparent in the sex abuse case than other public officials have been in similar circumstances. For example, Richmond Police Chief Allwyn Brown revealed almost nothing on Sept. 12 about the 11 cops in his department who were involved in the same scandal.

Public officials are stymied by two state laws signed by Jerry Brown during his first go-round as governor in the 1970s: the Public Safety Officers’ Procedural Bill of Rights’ Act and Penal Code 832.7 (the courts later upheld both laws). Brown and the legislature enacted the laws because of the political power and influence of police unions, which cited, without much evidence, fears about officer safety if cops’ identities are revealed when they do wrong. Police unions have blocked attempts to reform or overturn those secrecy laws ever since.

But 40 years later, it’s clear that police secrecy does more harm than good. Since the public does not know which officers behave deplorably, many people assume all cops must be bad. That’s wrong, of course, but secrecy fosters such beliefs because it also prohibits mayors from identifying the good cops not involved in misconduct. “It keeps me from defending the honorable officers,” said Schaaf.

Gov. Brown has recently acknowledged that many of the pro-police, tough-on-crime laws that he signed in the 1970s—like locking people up for drug crimes—were wrongheaded. Let’s hope he realizes that California’s police secrecy laws are, too.

Our Backyard is an occasional column by senior editor Robert Gammon.

This column appears in the October edition of Oakland Magazine.

Published online on Sept. 22, 2016 at 12:00 p.m.

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