BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The Bakersfield Police Officer Association has joined multiple police unions across California by filing a claim in Kern County in an effort to stop the release of specific police records related to Senate Bill 1421.
The complaint was filed in response to SB 1421 which was signed into law last September and went into effect at the beginning of the year. The new law requires certain peace officer records be made available for public inspection through the California Public Records Act.
Specifically, the public can now request documents related to specific incidents. Those specifics include an officer firing their weapon at a person as well as an incident where use of force by an officer results in death or great bodily injury. The law requires records also be released for an incident where a sustained sexual assault by a peace officer involving a member of the public or an incident where it was determined an officer was dishonest while on duty.
The complaint filed on Friday March 13 is asking a judge to stop the city of Bakersfield from releasing records related to incidents prior to January 1, 2019.
The complaint also states that SB 1421 contains no legislative direction for a retroactive application of the law, but BPOA said through conversations with the city of Bakersfield they believe the city intends to share records and has been sharing records related to incidents that happened prior to the start of the year.
Deputy City Attorney Richard Iger told 23ABC News in January that the city could honor requests for records even if the incident happened before January 1 because the law did not specify a time frame. The BPOA complaint argues releasing records from past incidents would violate officers privacy rights under the state constitution.
"One of the primary functions of the Bakersfield Police Officers Association (BPOA) is to protect the rights of our members and represent their legal interests relating to their employment as peace officers. SB 1421 and its retroactivity is unjust. Moving forward, the BPOA supports the spirit of SB 1421 and will work with the City of Bakersfield, Chief Martin and the leadership of the Bakersfield Police Department, and our state legislators to find a proactive solution that equally meets the spirit of SB 1421 and protects the interests of our officers."
The Kern County Counsel said they have not determined if they will honor records requests for incidents involving the sheriff's department before January 1, 2019. Instead, officials said they would wait to see what happens across the nation before making a determination on how to proceed.
"Police Chiefs and Sheriffs across this state will tell you, we as leaders in our respective communities have wanted to speak to issues and release information to the public, but were precluded from doing so by statute. Many of the Police Officer Associations (POA) understand and support this. The concern for POAs becomes where does it stop and how far is too far? The BPOA and I have consulted throughout this process prior to the filing. I completely understand their position and being the custodian of records it is a required part of the process for them to name the Chief of Police. This presents zero controversy or internal issues. We await the Court’s opinion and will abide by their decisions as we always do.”
Richard Anderson is the president of Kern Law Enforcement Association which represents local deputies. He said he understands the need for transparency, but has several concerns with the way the law was written, specifically referencing the release of past records.
"Are they going to go back 20 years? Who's going to pull those files? Who's going to look at them? Who's going to redact them? So you have a cost for the department and you have a staffing issue and every agency up and down the state of California has staffing issues right now, us included," Anderson said.
Anderson also talked about concerns over people posting small portions of records, out of context, online and on social media. He goes on to say there are also issues with the term "great bodily injury", saying what one person perceives at "great bodily injury" another person may not.
"I don't want dirty cops. I don't know anyone in my agency that would tolerate it. I wouldn't. I don't want cops that are going around using excessive force inn the public because we lose public trust when that happens, but there has to be a balance." Anderson said.
Meanwhile Sheriff Donny Youngblood said he likes the idea of more transparency.
"I want to talk about those cases when a deputy does something so badly that we terminate them or you know get severe discipline. I want to be able to tell the public 'I'm taking care of this' and I haven't been able to do that in the past." Sheriff Youngblood said.
He went on to say he doesn't agree that the bill should be retroactive, but said he'll follow the direction from County Counsel.
“So far, every California judge who has held a hearing on the merits of SB 1421 has ruled that it applies to records regardless of when they were created – just as the Legislature intended.” “I’m heartened to see that dozens of police agencies up and down California are releasing records as the law requires.”
At this time KLEA said they don't have any plans to file a lawsuit. BPOA is just the latest police union to file a complaint trying to stop the release of records prior to January 1 of this year. So far at least nine agencies have challenged the law and while litigation continues for some of those departments, some ruling have already been made against major unions like the one that represents LAPD in favor of releasing the records.
So far the California Supreme Court has declined to weigh in on whether or not the law is meant to be retroactive.