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Is pendulum swinging back on police issues?

Is pendulum swinging back on police issues?

SACRAMENTO – It’s dangerous to read too much into some small signs of sanity at the state Capitol, but the deaths in recent days of two obnoxious police-secrecy bills remind us that there are, indeed, some limits to the groveling that California legislators will accept to earn the favor of law-enforcement unions.

The fate of these bills – along with some protests and other actions taking place across the state – might also be a sign that the state’s residents are ready for a wider debate about some core civil liberties, something in short supply since the 9/11 attacks encouraged Americans to put their security above their freedoms.

Democratic and Republican politicians depend on the support of the uniformed unions and fear being labeled as soft-on-crime, which means that these special-interest groups get pretty much whatever they demand. There’s a reason those six-figure pensions are so common. But the problem goes well beyond pension spiking and other financial issues.

Last week, the Senate Governance and Finance Committee killed Assembly Bill 2299, which would have allowed police officers, correctional officers, prosecutors and judges to keep their names off public property records. Approved by the Assembly 68-0, the bill was based on the unproven notion that criminals look up the home addresses of public safety officials and then attack them – even supporters couldn’t come up with examples of this having happened.

Had it passed, the bill would have undermined the public property record system and would have been an open door for real estate scams.

The legislators who voted for this bill knew better, but they weren’t about to stand up to these unions. Yet sanity did prevail. It also prevailed with AB1275, which would have banned the media from getting copies of transcripts and tapes of 911 emergency calls.

AB1275, also killed in a Senate committee, was a reaction to the release of an emergency call earlier this year involving by actress Demi Moore and was supposedly designed to spare citizens embarrassment. But the real result would have been protecting law enforcement officials from scrutiny over their handling of emergency situations.

In the past, these bills would have moved forward with little scrutiny, but this police-union overreach grabbed wider attention and sparked the dismay of newspaper editorial boards across California.

We all know that secrecy is a petri dish for misbehavior, yet the unions continue to push bills that shield their members from oversight. It’s already very difficult to learn what actually happened in many cases of police use of deadly force, thanks to the Peace Officers Bill of Rights in the state Government Code and other special protections.

Consider the following headlines: “Surge seen in shootings of Sacramento deputies” and “Killings of police in L.A. County jump sharply.” Everyone in the state would be well-aware of this data. The Capitol rightly would be awash in proposals to protect officers from the carnage.

Those headlines are close to accurate, except one word was changed in each.

The actual headlines are (from the Sacramento Bee): “Surge seen in shootings by Sacramento County deputies,” and (from the Los Angeles Times), “Killings by police in L.A. County jump sharply.”

There’s a trend here.

Police have broad latitude to use deadly force. Thanks to the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights and the state Supreme Court’s Copley Press v. San Diego decision in 2006, the public and media have virtually no access to allegations of wrongdoing or investigations against police officers. We see only what police agencies want us to see, and only through the civil litigation process do crucial details emerge. But lawsuits are no panacea given that agencies often provide financial compensation in exchange for nondisclosure.

In Sacramento, complacent official attitudes toward police use-of-force issues may contribute to the problem. District Attorney Jan Scully halted all investigations of police-involved shootings, a shocking dereliction of duty that she blames on budget cuts, but is a sop to police unions.

Increasing numbers of officer-involved shootings may be statistical anomalies, but the pattern is spread across various jurisdictions.

“The high number of killings last year underscores a pronounced jump in the overall number of occasions in which officers fired their weapons at suspects,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

While most shootings appear justified (especially given the wide latitude given officers), there is no trend justifying the increase.

“The rise in killings by police is all the more notable because it occurred at a time when the overall number of homicides in the area had fallen to historic lows,” the Times said. “With 612 people killed in the county last year, nearly 1 in every 10 such deaths occurred at the hands of law enforcement officers.”

It’s about time for a public debate about these numbers and about the degree to which extreme protections for officials may have led to an increased willingness to use deadly force. In many cases, the victims were unarmed.

In Anaheim, the city announced that all officer-involved shootings will be subject to outside review. A daily vigil held by family members of several people killed by the city’s police has kept pressure on the city. In the June 5 election, Fullerton residents recalled three councilmen who they believed were complicit in protecting officers involved in the death of Kelly Thomas, an unarmed homeless man – during an arrest in July that was captured in horrifying detail on video.

In recent days, Rodney King – the victim of an infamous beating by Los Angeles police that led to 1992 Los Angeles riots – was found dead in the pool at his home.

The riots led to some police reforms but also hardened attitudes by the public. The 9/11 attacks and continued pushing of the envelope by police unions impelled the pendulum further in the law-and-order direction. Maybe now it will swing back a bit in the other direction.

When even the union-dominated California Senate says enough is enough, there, indeed, may be reason for optimism.

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