The Peace Officers Research Association of California, the most powerful statewide lobby of law-enforcement officers (with the possible exception of the prison guards' union) is pushing a bill that would seriously undermine the ability of local agencies to cut down on police misconduct. It's so bad that it's opposed not only by the ACLU but by the California Police Chiefs Association and the California State Sheriffs Association.
It sailed through the state Senate and it might make it to the Assembly floor -- if progressives, including Assemblymember Nancy Skinner of Berkeley, cave and vote for it in committee.
The bill, SB 313, deals with the way police agencies handle something called the Brady decision. That's a US Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland, which held that prosecutors have to turn over to the defense in a criminal case any evidence that might be exculpatory -- including any evidence that police officers who might be called to the stand have past disciplinary issues that might reflect on their credibility.
So whenever a cop has a history of misconduct -- say, lying to investigators -- he or she gets what's called a "Brady jacket." Somewhere in that cop's file is a notice that if he or she is going to be a witness in a criminal case, the prosecutors need to tell the defense.
Brady officers tend to make lousy witnesses, since they can easily be impeached. So officers with a Brady jacket might not be good candidates for jobs (say, homicide detective) that will inevitably involve a lot of courtroom appearances -- and in which their credibility could be central to a case.
But SB 313 would bar any police department from denying promotion to any officer on the basis of a Brady jacket. It would say, in essence, that even if a cop has been caught, and disciplined, for lying or cheating or planting evidence, that can't be used as a factor in future personnel decisions.
It's crazy: A cop who was caught falsifying evidence in a robbery case wants to be promoted to homicide detective. His or her superiors realize that the Brady jacket makes it virtually impossible for that person to be effective on that job. But too bad -- you can't take that into consideration.
You can see why the police chief's don't like this.
But PORAC is a serious player in Sacramento, and if this disaster gets to the Assembly floor, it might pass.
Assemblymember Tom Ammiano chairs the Public Safety Committee. It's a thankless job, but progressives tend to be put there so they can dispose of the worse kinds of right-wing law-enforcement stuff without forcing the more moderate Dems to deal with it on the floor. And this is one that ought to die in committee.
But PORAC is forcing a vote this Tuesday (July 2) and it's going to be close. Ammiano, of course, is against it. But there are seven members on the panel, two of them Republicans, which means three of the four remaining Dems have to vote with Ammiano. Every vote counts, and I'm nervous about Nancy Skinner.
Skinner's been a solid progressive all her life. But she's looking at the Senate seat of the retiring Loni Hancock,and will no doubt be facing Sandre Swanson, who wanted the seat in 2012. Swanson's much closer to the police unions, and that puts Skinner in a tricky place.
I've tried to get her on the phone to talk about it, but nobody from her office has called me back. I know I'm not the powerful Bay Guardian editor I used to be, but I've known Nancy since her days on the Berkeley City Council in the 1980s. If she's not talking to me, maybe she doesn't want to talk about SB 313.