Local agencies in California will be required to provide increased access to peace and custodial officer personnel records with the passage of SB 1421, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The new law makes officer personnel records that were previously confidential available to the public pursuant to a California Public Records Act request.
This legislation, signed Sept. 30, follows years of public outcry against police conduct in officer-involved shootings and increased advocacy for transparency in policing. California affords police officers some of the strictest privacy protections in the nation with respect to personnel records. SB 1421 loosens these protections.
Existing law provides that requests for information in police personnel files and records of citizen complaints must be made through a Pitchess motion in compliance with stringent statutory procedures. SB 1421 now makes some of these records available in response to a PRA request, including:
Reports, investigations and findings related to an incident involving an officer’s discharge of a weapon or use of force resulting in death or great bodily injury.
Any record related to an incident in which sustained findings were made that an officer engaged in sexual assault against a member of the public.
Any record related to an incident in which sustained findings were made that an officer was dishonest in the reporting, investigation or prosecution of a crime or the reporting or investigation of another peace officer.
SB 1421 also defines the types of records that must be disclosed in these instances, including:
All investigative reports, photographic, audio and video evidence, transcripts or recordings of interviews, and autopsy reports.
All materials compiled and presented for review to the district attorney or anyone else charged with determining whether to file criminal charges against an officer or a course of disciplinary action.
Documents setting forth findings or recommended findings.
Copies of disciplinary records relating to the incident.
An agency may withhold or delay disclosure of these records if they concern incidents that are the subject of an active investigation. Among the limited reasons for which records may be redacted are if “there is a specific, articulable, and particularized reason to believe that disclosure” would pose a significant danger to the physical safety of the peace officer or another person.
Though the impact of SB 1421 on agencies’ handling of police personnel records and investigations of complaints is still being assessed, local agencies should prepare for increased demand for records disclosures.