California’s attorney general said Thursday that he won’t release older records on state law enforcement agents’ misconduct despite a recently released appeals court ruling that they are public documents.
That’s prompting criticism from the Democratic state senator who authored last year’s police transparency law. It requires law enforcement agencies to publicly release records on police shootings and officer misconduct.
Attorney General Xavier Becerra argued that last week’s decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal isn’t binding. His interpretation conflicts with other attorneys and law enforcement leaders who said the ruling means that records created before the law took effect Jan. 1 are subject to disclosure.
Becerra and a police union’s lawyer said the ruling merely lifted a stay on a lower court decision that supported releasing the records, but isn’t a ruling on the merits. Police unions in multiple counties have sued to block releasing the records, while public information advocates say the records should be disclosed.
“As soon as we have an official decision on the merits, we’ll be prepared to act based on that official decision,” Becerra said.
Sen. Nancy Skinner of Berkeley said her bill was intended to be retroactive as she sharply questioned her fellow Democrat’s decision not to comply with the appeals court ruling.
“As the person who is responsible for in effect enforcing the laws of the state of California … one cannot opt not to follow a law that was enacted in the state of California,” she said during an hours-long oversight committee hearing. She added dismissively later that, “it’s like an elective decision as to which of our laws you will enforce and which you won’t.”
Becerra praised lawmakers for passing a bill he said advances police transparency, but said he is being cautious because it overturns a longstanding law granting police special privacy protections.
“I’ve always taken the position that when it comes to privacy, you get one chance to do it right,” he told committee members. “If you disclose someone’s private information and you were wrong, you can’t un-ring that bell, that private information is now out there for everyone to see and you cannot sort of pull it back.”
He said there have been several conflicting court decisions, but he expects a final decision soon.
The budget oversight committee also delayed a decision on Becerra’s request for more money to enforce a program that seizes firearms from people who no longer are allowed to own them because they have been convicted of felonies or have a history of domestic violence or mental illness.
Becerra blames a lingering lag in investigations on an increase in gun possessions and too few special agents, despite an infusion of $24 million in 2013 that was supposed to be enough to eliminate the backlog within three years. His proposed budget would add $5.6 million, for a total of nearly $17 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
But while Republicans have long criticized Becerra and his Democratic predecessor for the persistent backlog, Democrats on the subcommittee were clearly impatient as well.
Democratic Sen. Jim Beall of San Jose compared the program to the beleaguered Department of Motor Vehicles that he said may need wholesale changes.
“I’m kind of hard pressed to just throw more money at it,” he said.