Sen. Skinner Introduces Bills to Expand Public Access to Police Records and End the Use of Police to Respond to Social Service Calls
State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, announced today that she has introduced two new bills: SB 776 which will expand and strengthen her landmark police transparency law (SB 1421) passed in 2018, and SB 773 which will begin the process of reforming California’s 911 system so that calls concerning mental health, homelessness, drug overdoses, and other issues not requiring police intervention can go to an appropriate social services agency rather than law enforcement.
SB 776 will expand the public’s ability to obtain records on a law enforcement officer’s use of force, wrongful arrests or wrongful searches, and for the first time in 40 years, records that show an officer has engaged in biased or discriminatory behavior. Additionally, SB 776 would ensure that officers with a history of misconduct can’t just quit their jobs, keep their records secret, and move on to continue bad behavior in another jurisdiction.
The new legislation also addresses tactics some agencies have used to stall or circumvent the release of records by establishing civil penalties for agencies that fail to release records in a timely manner and mandating that agencies can only charge for the cost of duplication.
“Californians have the right to know who is patrolling our streets and who is given the authority to enforce our laws,” Sen. Skinner said. “We must not settle for officers who abuse authority in any way. With expanded public access to police misconduct, SB 776 sends a clear message that racist, discriminatory, and abusive officers are not welcomed in our communities.”
Sen. Skinner’s second bill, SB 773, the Community Assistance Response Act, is designed to address the fact that sending armed officers into situations where other personnel are more appropriate — for example, on a person experiencing a mental health crisis or a child operating a lemonade stand without a permit — is not only a bad use of resources but also can be a recipe for disaster. A recent report by The New York Times revealed that police officers typically spend a majority of their time responding to calls for help with the homeless or the mentally ill, drug overdoses, minor traffic problems, and other similar issues.
Some cities have reformed their 911 systems to redirect calls that don’t require a police response. Last year, the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon, which dispatches two-person teams of medics and mental health counselors to nonviolent situations, handled 18% of the 133,000 calls to 911, and only needed police backup on 150 of those calls. Boston, Massachusetts and Oakland, California are planning to start similar programs, and Alameda County plans to launch its Community Assessment Treatment and Transport Team (CATT) in partnership with the cities of Alameda, San Leandro, and Hayward in the months ahead.
“It’s time to reimagine policing and how we respond to community needs.” Sen. Skinner said. “SB 773 will reform our 911 system so that law enforcement is not responding to the type of calls that make much more sense to dispatch a social service professional.”
California’s police transparency law, SB 1421, went into effect in January 2019 and made a limited set of records on police use of force and serious misconduct, like on-the-job sexual assault and dishonesty, publicly available for the first time in four decades.
Sen. Skinner’s new police transparency bill expands the categories of records that the public can access and addresses roadblocks agencies have used to avoid releasing records. Specifically, SB 776:
- Expands access to all records involving police use of force (not just incidents that result in death or great bodily injury), except for frivolous complaints
- Expands access to all records involving police dishonesty related to criminal investigations and on-the-job sexual assault (not just complaints that are sustained), excluding frivolous complaints
- Provides access to all disciplinary records involving officers who have engaged in racist, homophobic, or anti-Semitic behavior, or actions against any other protected class — again, as long as the complaints are not frivolous
- Requires access to the above records even when an officer resigns before the agency’s investigation is complete
- Provides access to sustained findings of wrongful arrests and wrongful searches
- Mandates that an agency, before hiring any candidate who has prior law enforcement experience, to inquire and review the officer’s prior history of complaints, disciplinary hearings, and uses of force.
- Eliminates the five-year rule on retention of police records
- Allows agencies to only charge the public for the direct cost of duplication of records (not the cost of editing and redacting)
- And adds civil fines of $1,000 a day for agencies that fail to release records and punitive damages when an agency is sued for not releasing records or improperly redacting them.
“Too often, officers quit in order to keep their records of misconduct under wraps,” Skinner added. “Keeping information confidential when an officer resigns allows bad cops to jump from one job to the next without consequence.”
“When officers commit illegal, violent, or discriminatory acts, taxpayers are on the hook for massive cash payouts to settle lawsuits” Skinner continued. “This has a real-time effect on government’s ability to fund education, health care, homelessness programs, and other services our communities expect government to fund. SB 776 will ensure that law enforcement agencies and the public know when an officer has engaged in misconduct.”
Under SB 773, the 911 reform legislation, the state would empower California’s 911 Advisory Board to recommend changes to local 911 systems so that violent crime and other true police emergencies are prioritized by law enforcement, and calls that require something closer to a welfare check could be dispatched to non-law enforcement agencies or staff.
Both SB 776 and SB 773 are being amended now and are in the Assembly Rules Committee.
Sen. Nancy Skinner represents the 9th Senate District and is the Senate majority whip. She is also the chair of the Senate Public Safety policy and budget committees.