As the days wind down for the California legislature to pass bills, transparency advocates have seen landmark measures fall by the wayside. Without explanation, an Assembly committee shelved legislation that would have shined light on police use of surveillance technologies, including a requirement that police departments seek approval from their city councils. The legislature also gutted a key reform to the California Public Records Act (CPRA) that would’ve allowed courts to fine agencies that improperly thwart requests for government documents.
But there is one last chance for California to improve the public’s right to access police records. S.B. 345 would require every law enforcement agency in the state to publish on its website all “current standards, policies, practices, operating procedures, and education and training materials” by January 1, 2019. The legislation would cover all materials that would be otherwise available through a CPRA request.
S.B. 345 is now on Gov. Jerry Brown's desk, and he should sign it immediately.
There are two main reasons EFF is supporting this bill.
The first is obvious: in order to hold law enforcement accountable, we need to understand the rules that officers are playing by. For privacy advocates, access to materials about advanced surveillance technologies—such as automated license plate readers, facial recognition, drones, and social media monitoring—will lead to better and more informed debates over policy. The bill also would strengthen the greater police accountability movement, by proactively releasing policies and training about use of force, deaths in custody, body-worn cameras, and myriad other controversial police tactics and procedures.
The second reason is more philosophical: we believe that rather than putting the onus on the public to always file formal records requests, government agencies should automatically upload their records to the Internet whenever possible. S.B. 345 creates openness by default for hundreds of agencies across the state.
To think of it another way: S.B. 345 is akin to the legislature sending its own public records request to every law enforcement agency in the state.
Unlike other measures EFF has supported this session, S.B. 345 has not drawn strong opposition from law enforcement. In fact, only the California State Sheriffs’ Association is in opposition, arguing that the bill could require the disclosure of potentially sensitive information. This is incorrect, since the bill would only require agencies to publish records that would already be available under the CPRA. The claim is further undercut by the fact that eight organizations representing law enforcement have come out in support of the bill, including the California Narcotics Officers Association and the Association of Deputy District Attorneys.
The bill isn’t perfect. As written, the enforcement mechanism are vague, and it’s unclear what kind of consequences, if any, agencies may face if they fail to post these records in a little more than a year. In addition, agencies may overly withhold or redact policies, as is often the case with responses to traditional public records requests. Nevertheless, EFF believes that even the incremental measure contained in the bill will help pave the way for long term transparency reforms.