Brent J. Meyer
PORAC Vice President
With a new legislative season underway in Sacramento, PORAC is busy meeting with State Senate and Assembly members. We are tracking bills, potential legislation and proposed laws that are being introduced into the pipeline, which will impact how law enforcement officers do their jobs.
The word “transparency” is catnip for legislators, especially when it involves law enforcement. Around the State Capitol, we have heard several elected officials discuss their ideas to bring more transparency to the investigative process that unfolds when deadly force in the line of duty takes a civilian’s life. This is an area of tremendous importance to PORAC. Two years ago, Assembly Member Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) introduced Assembly Bill 86, which would have required the California attorney general to appoint a special prosecutor whenever a peace officer killed a person in the line of duty. The bill would have given the special prosecutor sole authority to determine whether criminal charges would be filed against the officers involved.
McCarty said his intent was to separate local district attorneys from the investigative process in deadly force cases. He suggested that the close working relationship between law enforcement agencies and most district attorney offices in California could create a potentially challenging environment for objective investigations into the use of deadly force. He also believed a special prosecutor could give the public and media more transparency in the aftermath of critical incidents. PORAC actively opposed AB 86, which expired in the Appropriations Committee last year. But we don’t expect its demise to mark the end of proposed legislation that seeks to change time-tested practices of deadly force investigations in California. In fact, McCarty welcomed us into his office just recently to signal his intent to reintroduce this bill. Elected officials must respond to public pressure. Often, they follow trends.
One trend we see involves the introduction of public police commissions or civilian review boards. California law already allows cities and counties to appoint police commissions and civilian review boards. These are typically limited in scope and authority. They generally review and advise, leaving the most difficult decisions right where they belong — locally, with elected district attorneys, mayors, city councils, boards of supervisors and their professional managers. But this could change.
PORAC is alert to the appointment of public police commissions. We are never reluctant to tell elected officials exactly how we feel about this trend. To say we are concerned puts it mildly, and our reluctance to embrace the police commission model comes from experience and history. Many of our membership associations have seen what can happen when the best intentions for transparency and citizen involvement are introduced to the realities of law enforcement. Throw in a dash of political expediency and an overblown media “crisis,” and the potential for negative consequences becomes significant.
By their design, police commissions face several inherent challenges. Not being part of the law enforcement chain of command — which is the whole point — civilian review boards can easily lack essential information in the immediate aftermath of a critical incident. Without important information and complete facts, police commissions are tempted to jump to conclusions. Pressured by the public and media in this world of 60-minute television-inspired police investigations, civilian review boards have demonstrated an unwillingness to patiently wait for all the information, some of which requires months to sift through and process. They go public with speculative or incomplete findings.
Another problem for police commissions is the distinction between objective and biased review. Civilian review boards are typically built with political appointments. The presence of members with outspoken biases against law enforcement is not unusual. Even the most open-minded civilian police commissioners will likely have minimal understanding of professional policing and standardized law enforcement procedures, beyond what they have absorbed from the media. Bias and ignorance can easily infect commission outcomes.
The lack of objectivity and professional training can lead civilian police commissions into a world of expectations unrecognizable and unattainable by a veteran cop. Civilian oversight may see no harm in rigid guidelines and inflexible regulations; such inflexible parameters make their tasks easier to manage, but they make your job impossible to do. Unfortunately, that’s not how our profession works. Any veteran officer knows the most important skills needed for the job are flexibility, adaptability and fluidity in making decisions. Such concepts are just difficult for civilians to appreciate.
Finally, civilian oversight faces a major challenge that has no connection to politics, bias or experience. By law, they do not have access to law enforcement personnel records — and rightly so. Thus, they may base conclusions on a vague disposition letter, where specific policy violations may or may not be presented without broader context to what happened.
PORAC understands the need for transparency and accountability in law enforcement. In fact, we are working toward proposing sensible and practical legislation to accomplish this. We are aware that our work cannot be successful without consistent widespread public and political support. We recognize why the public and media demand information about critical incidents and deadly force. But we also know the best intentions can bring disastrous consequences for our membership when judgments are biased, rushed and incomplete. So, we’ll continue to do our very best at trying to improve law enforcement’s relationship with the communities that we serve, but we will never make concessions that compromise your safety.
Thank you for your membership, have fun and be safe!