California Gov. Jerry Brown was in the last months of his first term when he signed a bill championed by law enforcement groups to limit criminal defendants' access to peace officers' personnel records, reports the Sacramento Bee. More than 35 years later, the 1978 law is part of a nearly impenetrable barrier restricting public access to law enforcement disciplinary records and civilian complaints.
Eighty-three percent of voters backed enshrining the state's open-records law in the Constitution a decade ago. Even so, open-records advocates say California residents today have some of the least access to law enforcement records of anywhere in the country. Bills to tighten the restrictions, pushed by politically influential law enforcement unions, routinely sail through the legislature. Attempts to provide more disclosure have been few and unsuccessful. While critics say the restrictions fuel a distrust of police, law enforcement groups argue that the laws protect public servants in a dangerous profession. Defense attorneys could use baseless complaints against an officer to undermine a legitimate case, they say, and criminals could try to retaliate against an off-duty officer.