Landmark law aims to improve police accountability and transparency

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This year, California joined 47 other states in creating a decertification process for law enforcement officers who commit gross misconduct, barring them from serving in any of the law enforcement agencies. of State. After the murder of George Floyd, states across the country implemented a series of reforms to increase the accountability of agents. One of the primary purposes of California law (SB 2) is to prevent “wandering officers”— those who commit misconduct and then move on to another agency. The bill also includes several measures to improve transparency, which could lead to a better understanding of the frequency and nature of police misconduct in California.

SB 2 requires seismic change for law enforcement and the state’s Commission for Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), the licensing agency for police officers. POST has been tasked with reviewing and, if necessary, conducting its own misconduct investigations, in addition to implementing the decertification process. A civilian-led accountability committee will publicly review the findings of the investigation and make recommendations. The POST commissioners, who are largely made up of current or former members of law enforcement, will then vote on the final result.

The law also requires the California Department of Justice (DOJ) to provide all felony and misdemeanor disqualifying convictions of police officers to POST. Examples of disqualifying misconduct offenses include dishonesty, abuse of authority, failure to cooperate in an investigation of the misconduct, and failure to intervene when excessive force by another is observed. officer.

These are significant changes from the status quo. Prior to SB 2, a felony conviction should have disqualified an officer from serving in law enforcement, but POST had limited knowledge of the extent of police misconduct as it relied heavily on Voluntary and inconsistent agency reporting. SB 2 now obliges agencies to notify POST of any separation of an agent within ten days and to provide misconduct sheets.

SB 2 is also expected to improve the accessibility of data on police misconduct, an area notoriously difficult to study because existing data sources are limited. In our recent report, we looked at one of the few misconduct resources, crowdsourced arrest data for law enforcement officers. We found that approximately 80 California law enforcement officers are arrested each year, out of over 78,000 officers, for an arrest rate of 103 arrests per 100,000 law enforcement officers. For context, California’s 2019 arrest rate for the population as a whole was 2,642 arrests per 100,000 population. Most arrests of law enforcement officers resulted in convictions (76%), the majority of which were felony convictions (62%). Arrests were most often for aggravated common assault, followed by sexual assault and impaired driving.

But this data on arrests, which comes from a national database, likely underestimates cases of misconduct for two reasons: (1) it is collected using search engine tools and may not not capture all arrests, and (2) they do not reflect all instances of misconduct, such as those documented in personnel records, prosecution settlements, etc.

SB 2’s transparency initiatives — which make decertification records public — could allow researchers to more accurately identify the frequency of different types of misconduct, differences between agencies and regions, and racial disparities in victimization. . For example, a national database created in 2019 by USA today of more than 30,000 decertified agents from 44 states, not including California, showed that while less than 10% of agents at most agencies were investigated for misconduct, a notable portion of those agents did the subject of repeated investigations.

SB 2 provides important tools to address police misconduct and improve transparency, but the success of these reforms depends on compliance and accurate reporting by local law enforcement agencies. At first, personnel or technology constraints can pose a challenge, as was the case when the state began to collect information on the use of force and not all agencies reported data. For SB 2, agencies may need to develop new processes for reporting agent separations within the mandated ten days.

In the long term, the creation of a public, anonymized police misconduct database would help researchers and the public make the most of the newly available data. As the state begins to collect and share better information, it will be critical to assess the effects of this legislation on police misconduct and public safety.

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