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Effort to open files on police thwarted

June 27, 2007|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Faced with broad opposition by law enforcement groups, legislation to reopen disciplinary hearings and records of police officers to the public stalled in a key state Assembly committee Tuesday, failing to get a single vote and virtually ensuring that the bill would not pass this year.

"Would somebody turn the lights out in this room, please," bill sponsor Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said angrily after Assembly Public Safety Committee members refused to move for a vote on the bill.

The legislation passed the state Senate 21 to 10 this month, but Tuesday it drew opposing testimony from dozens of police officers from Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Fresno, Berkeley, Modesto, Anaheim, San Bernardino and Riverside. Many of them warned that disclosure of officers' personnel information would jeopardize their lives.

"We still consider it an anti-law enforcement bill," Ron Cottingham, president of the Police Officers Research Assn. of California, told the committee. "It will endanger our officers. It will endanger their families."

Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana), the committee chairman, raised several issues, including concern that the legislation could hamper police recruitment and that it would allow each city and county to decide what information to release.

Solorio also talked about the potentially lethal danger that police officers face.

"It's a real threat that many folks face," he said. "I'm very concerned about maintaining the privacy of police officers and their families."

Romero introduced the bill after a Supreme Court decision last year -- Copley Press vs. Superior Court of San Diego -- that police agencies interpreted as prohibiting them from disclosing disciplinary records and from opening disciplinary hearings to the public because they are considered confidential personnel records.

Hearings such as those held by the Los Angeles Police Department disciplinary boards had been open to the public for decades before the decision. The issue took on new controversy after disclosures that an LAPD board cleared an officer of wrongdoing in the 2005 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown, but never announced the decision.

The legislation, SB 1019, had sparked a heated clash between police officer groups and organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which are demanding more transparency.

The head of the Professional Peace Officers Assn. recently threatened to oppose a relaxation of term limits for legislators if the Romero bill passed.

Romero said she thought the threat over term limits was an undercurrent at the hearing.

"Clearly, when you have this kind of silence, this kind of nonaction, this is a pretty strong signal that the Assembly does not want to see this in their house," Romero said. "It makes it very unlikely it will happen this year."

The inaction means the bill is stalled in committee, along with similar legislation by Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that was held up earlier this year.

Romero said she would not give up, even if it meant revisiting the bill next year.

"This issue is not going to go away because this is about democracy, this is about sunshine on government, this is about the public's right to know," she told the committee during a 90-minute public hearing.

About 40 people spoke in favor of the legislation, including Andrew Antwih, a representative of Los Angeles city government.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton said earlier this year that they supported reopening police disciplinary hearings and records to the public, but neither official appeared at the hearing Tuesday.

"I'm very disappointed in the leadership in Los Angeles," Romero said. The mayor did not return calls seeking comment; the chief said it was "unfortunate" that the bill did not pass.

Everett Bobbitt, who represented several police groups, voiced concern that documents and hearings would be opened to the public when an allegation was sustained by a police agency, not later when adjudicated with the possibility of being overturned.

Other opponents who spoke Tuesday included Orange County Assistant Sheriff Jack Anderson, who objected to the bill on behalf of Sheriff Michael S. Carona.

The Los Angeles Police Protective League said criminals could learn personal information about officers who were cracking down on them by filing unfounded complaints and then gathering information at a public hearing.

"Keeping such personnel matters private also allows for hearings to be focused on the facts of a case and not driven by media or public frenzy," the league said in a statement.

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