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California's New Police Transparency Law Shows How Officers Are Disciplined


One California officer had sex in the front of his police cruiser. Another stole thousands of bullets from his agency. Others used force illegally and lied in reports. And none of those police officers were prosecuted. These revelations are coming out thanks to a new police transparency law in California. About 30 news organizations in the state are working together to get and analyze police records unsealed by the law. Reporter Sukey Lewis of member station KQED is part of this collaboration.

SUKEY LEWIS, BYLINE: Richard Perez is part of a club he says no one wants to belong to - loved ones of people killed by police.

RICHARD PEREZ: Every one of us has the same story. It's, the police will not release information.

LEWIS: Perez's 24-year-old son was unarmed when he was shot and killed by a police officer in 2014 outside a liquor store in Richmond, a city just east of San Francisco. He says when he tried to get disciplinary information about the officer who shot his son, another Richmond cop told him they wouldn't hand over the records because of the extraordinary privacy protections police have had in California for decades.

PEREZ: He says, well, it's the law. If you don't like the law, change it. Well, we were successful in changing the law.

LEWIS: Perez is one of a number of family member activists who lobbied lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 1421, which opens up the files of officers who've been disciplined for sexual assault or lying and all serious use of force incidents where someone got really hurt or died. But even after the law passed, the fight continued. Police unions started suing to keep the records sealed.

BENJAMIN THERRIAULT: It's not some dark, you know, secrets to be covered up. It's just that the process is important to folks.

LEWIS: Benjamin Therriault is the president of a police union which sued to stop the city of Richmond from releasing records to requesters, including Perez. He says officers who were disciplined before the new law went into effect went through the internal affairs process with the belief that whatever they said would be kept secret.

THERRIAULT: They were operating under different rules, and now they're told that those rules don't apply.

DAVID SNYDER: I think it's become quite clear through numerous court rulings now that the union's arguments are totally groundless.

LEWIS: That's David Snyder of the First Amendment Coalition, a transparency group that's fighting for access to records. He says few judges have agreed with the union's argument that the new law shouldn't apply retroactively. And the state Supreme Court has twice rejected requests to hear the case.

SNYDER: These records are really of paramount public importance. They are about misconduct and misconduct of the most serious kinds by public officials who have extraordinary power over the lives of Californians.

LEWIS: So far, about 130 law enforcement agencies have handed over records, including the city of Richmond, which just released the first batch of documents related to the shooting of Perez's son after a court dismissed the union's suit.

PEREZ: And I'm hoping to find some answers. Nothing's - I'll never get what I want out of it. I'm not going to get my son back, at least not in this life.

LEWIS: But as more records come out, what the public should get is a clearer understanding of how police do their jobs and how they are held accountable when they fail. For NPR News, I'm Sukey Lewis in Richmond, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sukey Lewis
Sukey Lewis is a criminal justice reporter and host of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. In 2018, she co-founded the California Reporting Project, a coalition of newsrooms across the state focused on obtaining previously sealed internal affairs records from law enforcement. In addition to her reporting on police accountability, Lewis has investigated the bail bonds industry, California's wildfires and the high cost of prison phone calls. Lewis earned a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley.