John Diaz

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The law enforcement lobby is going a bit crazy in Sacramento these days. It's working to overturn Supreme Court decisions that affirm the right of you - the taxpayers who pay the salaries of public safety officers - to know who they are, how much they are being paid and the extent of their disciplinary records.

I'm heartened to report that the two legislators who were tapped by law-enforcement lobbyists to carry these two insidious measures appear to be getting squeamish under the initial glare of public scrutiny.

This appears to be yet another instance where certain members of the California Legislature have no idea of what is being done in their names. The process allows for too many bills, too little time to reflect on them and too much deference to the special interests who actually draft the measures.

Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, became alarmed last week when he spotted language for a proposed overhaul of AB1855 that was expected to reach the Assembly Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

Newton described it as a "very efficient" evisceration of two recent Supreme Court decisions that asserted the public's right to find out basic information about law-enforcement officers, such as who they were and how much they were paid.

The measure was sponsored by the Peace Officers Research Association of California (PORAC) and authored by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Caņada Flintridge (Los Angeles County).

Under that proposed amendment, neither a name, salary nor other personnel information about an officer could be "subject to any mass disclosure." Under this proposal, police officers - who are disproportionately represented in six-figure incomes, typically the result of overtime - could not have been included in The Chronicle's database of public-employee salaries (sfgate.com/webdb/citypay) in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Vallejo.

"It's a breathtaking power grab," Newton observed.

Reached by phone Thursday, Portantino said there was a disconnect between his intentions and the proposed amendment's language. "It has not been and will not be" introduced as currently cast, Portantino said of the version of AB1855 that has been circulating.

He insisted his goal was to find a way to "protect undercover officers" from being exposed. If so, Portantino should review the court rulings: Undercover officers are expressly protected from such disclosures under current law.

PORAC's intentions are decidedly more sweeping. It does not believe names should be attached to officers' salaries, even though other government employees' pay levels are a matter of public record. Ron Cottingham, PORAC's president, said the limitations on the use of officers' names was prompted by Web sites such as ratemycop.com, which allows the public to offer its views on officers' performance - positively and negatively, sometimes fairly and sometimes not.

"We are working with the author," Cottingham said Thursday. "It's a sensitive topic. It's a sensitive area of law."

No kidding. The idea that a law could suppress public analysis of a public employee's performance, in a public way, is anathema to this democracy.

Another disturbing bill, AB2377, by Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi, D-Castro Valley, would elevate the legal threshold for a criminal defendant or plaintiff in a lawsuit to obtain records of police misconduct. Hayashi said the "sheriff's association came to me" with this proposed measure because a "huge backlog of requests" was overwhelming the courts.

Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's public defender, fired off a scathing analysis of the bill to the Assembly Public Safety Committee.

Adachi noted that a 1974 state Supreme Court ruling laid the groundwork for the current process, which requires a defendant to establish at a hearing that an arresting officer's personnel record is relevant to the case before it can be released. Access to those records, in criminal and civil cases, is a critical safeguard against police excesses and stonewalling.

A pattern is emerging in Sacramento.

"This is a multipronged effort to shield police misconduct from the public," Adachi said. "If you think about it, the only way police misconduct becomes known is a civil lawsuit or a criminal case where it's one of the disputed issues. Other than that, internal complaints would be undetectable. You would never know."

These two measures are on hold for the moment, at their authors' requests. It seems that neither Portantino nor Hayashi anticipated the potential furor over the proposals that were presented to them.

The law-enforcement lobby is not likely to give up easily. Stay tuned.

John Diaz is The Chronicle's editorial page editor. You can e-mail him at jdiaz@sfchronicle.com.


This article appeared on page G - 4 of the San Francisco Chronicle