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A vote for openness

State lawmakers want to restore public access to police disciplinary hearings. L.A. should back them.

June 05, 2007

THE CITY COUNCIL has a chance to weigh in today in support of state legislation to restore police transparency, a year after an ill-considered court ruling abruptly cut it off. The council should act for two reasons: first, because the bill would put police reform in Los Angeles back on track by permitting now-secret disciplinary hearings to be reopened; and second, because further council action will be required if the bill is signed into law. A vote today in support of Senate Bill 1019 will put the council firmly on record in favor of reestablishing the public access that was the order of the day here for three decades.

The council is already a little slow on the draw. The bill by Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) passed the state Senate on Monday. But better late than never. Support from Los Angeles will be crucial, as the bill faces tremendous pressure from police unions throughout the state on its move through the Assembly.

The officers' lobby is enjoying the tremendous windfall that was last August's state Supreme Court ruling in Copley Press vs. Superior Court. Since the 1970s, police officers here had known that allegations of serious misconduct would be heard and argued in a public forum. But the ruling made police disciplinary records secret, and then city officials decided they needed to close the hearings as well.

Even before Copley, a decision by city officials sealed police use-of-force records. The result: Here in Los Angeles -- where police abuse sparked two riots in a generation but the LAPD at least struck impressive gains for openness -- the public no longer has the right to know the names of officers who beat or fire at a suspect.

Pressure from police unions compelled Romero to delete the portion of her bill that would have restored access to many of those records. Now the officers' lobbyists are throwing their weight around to block the restoration of open hearings. To hear them talk, you would think the Legislature is entertaining some sweeping and unprecedented violation of privacy. But the bill would simply undo, partly, the giant backward step into darkness the state took last year.

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