Bookmark and Share

It’s time to stop coddling police in Golden State

Once again, police records released under a three-yearold state law call into question the ongoing practices of a Bay Area law enforcement agency.

This time the city is Richmond, where, it turns out, police dogs bite more frequently than in New York City, which has 80 times the population, Chicago or Washington, D.C.

From 2014-19, there were 73 Richmond cases in which police dogs caused significant injury, an average of more than one a month. More than 80% of people bitten by dogs in Richmond were either hiding or running from police; more than 60% were found unarmed. When race was noted in police reports, more than half of those bitten were Black, although they make up only 20% of Richmond’s population.

And in some cases, as Julia Prodis Sulek and Harriet Blair Rowan of the Bay Area News Group reported last weekend, the dogs attacked the wrong person.

Victims included a retired police officer from Mexico who was visiting family and sleeping in their shed (he wasn’t the man suspected of assaulting his wife whom cops were seeking), a teenager walking home from school (he wasn’t the car thief being sought) and even a Richmond police officer attacked in the department’s parking lot.

As in too many police-records cases across the state, the Richmond dog-bite incidents only came to light after litigation forced the city to turn over documents. This news organization and its media partners had to go to court to shake free the records.

Now, suddenly, Richmond officials are expressing alarm at the findings of frequent police dog bites in their community. They should also be asking why they fought disclosure of the records for so long.

Despite the growing push for law enforcement accountability, public officials who oversee California police departments, often elected after professing concern for reining in excessive law enforcement practices, repeatedly circle the wagon to protect their cops from transparency.

It’s time for those officials to get on the right side of this struggle. They can’t reform their police departments if they shield them from public review. Simply put, police reform begins with transparency.

A few elected officials, most notably San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, get this. Until he stepped up, his city’s police department had been stonewalling, and this news organization had been forced to launch legal action. The records that were finally released revealed that San Jose police officers rarely face discipline in cases where they inflicted serious injuries on civilians.

Police-records disclosures elsewhere were similarly disturbing: A veteran investigator for the California Department of Consumer Affairs had been stealing thousands of rounds of ammunition and other items for decades. A Walnut Creek officer repeatedly falsified reports but kept his job. A Sonoma County sheriff’s correctional deputy who fondled and kissed a female inmate under his guard avoided criminal charges. Domestic violence complaints against an officer living in the Central Valley town of Sanger were ignored.

And, as revealed in reporting by a collaboration of California newsrooms, more than 80 law enforcement officers working in California were convicted criminals, with rap sheets that include everything from animal cruelty to manslaughter.

For decades, police in California enjoyed wide-reaching protections against disclosure of their misbehavior. Then, in 2018, state lawmakers approved Senate Bill 1421, legislation authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, that started to pry open the door on police records The law now requires police agencies to release documents pertaining to cops’ discharge of firearms, use of major force, sexual assault and dishonesty. Starting Jan. 1, thanks to the passage this year of Skinner’s SB 16, police agencies will also have to disclose records of unreasonable force, racist or biased behavior, and unlawful searches or arrests.

SB 16 will also require police misconduct records be disclosed within 45 days of a document request, although public agencies will have until Jan. 1, 2023, to make public the newly disclosable records for incidents that occurred before 2022.

But, since the passage of SB 1421, police agencies across the state, including Oakland and Contra Costa County, have dragged their feet. According to an analysis by a coalition of media organizations known as the California Reporting Project, more than 173 agencies — representing 84% of the state’s sworn officers — have failed to fully respond to requests for use-of-force records.

The stalling has proved costly to taxpayers in the cases where local governments are finally forced into legal submission. Contra Costa County paid out $380,000 in legal fees. Richmond paid $225,000. San Jose coughed up $65,000.

When government agencies were first confronted with records requests under SB 1421, they complained of the volume and the uncertainty of what must be disclosed. They’ve now had three years to work out the workflow kinks. And courts across the state have clarified many of the key issues of dispute.

The time for excuses is over. Government officials must decide whether they want to reform their police departments or protect bad cops.

Odin lunges during training at the Richmond police K-9training facility in November.


Bookmark and Share