Because there’s just not enough opacity shrouding police misconduct and not enough slanting of the criminal justice system against defendants, California police unions have decided to get involved in a judicial dispute over lists of law enforcement officers whose half of “our word against yours” isn’t quite as bulletproof as is normally assumed.
A Los Angeles sheriff is trying to do the right thing, but he’s running into opposition from his own supposed “representatives.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department has collected the names of about 300 deputies who have a history of past misconduct — such as domestic violence, theft, bribery and brutality — that could damage their credibility if they testify in court.
Sheriff Jim McDonnell wants to send the names to prosecutors, who can decide whether to add them to an internal database that tracks problem officers in case the information needs to be disclosed to defendants in criminal trials.
I don’t imagine prosecutors are exactly thrilled to be the recipient of information that damages the credibility of their favorite witnesses, but it’s probably better than having your witness destroyed in open court by a defense attorney. But prosecutors may never see this information, thanks to the police union’s belief that officers shouldn’t be held accountable for anything.
The union that represents rank-and-file deputies strongly opposes providing the names to prosecutors and has taken the department to court. The Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs argues that the disclosure would violate state laws protecting officer personnel files and draw unfair scrutiny on deputies whose mistakes might have happened long ago.
The union is wrong. Officers’ misconduct records are a crucial part of their trustworthiness. Burying these just makes the union look like a willing enabler of bad behavior. There would be no “unfair scrutiny” of deputies. Judges and juries are perfectly capable of determining whether past misconduct is relevant to the case at hand. The union’s lawsuit seeks to place the determination of officers’ credibility solely in the union’s hands. And in its hands, all officers are credible until proven otherwise — something that will be almost impossible to do with exactly zero information on hand.
The union’s move is a preemptive Brady violation. Brady material is exculpatory evidence and information prosecutors are statutorily required to turn over to the defense. That would include misconduct records, which might point to a testifying officer’s lack of credibility, or show a pattern of relevant misconduct. These files would not be made public, which undercuts the union’s “privacy violation” claims. True, some of the files’ contents would be made public during court proceedings, but it’s not as though the sheriff is asking the DA’s office to post the contents of the list on its website.
The union wants law enforcement officers to have more rights than the people they serve. The body of a person killed by an officer hasn’t even begun to cool before department press liaisons are pushing the dead person’s criminal background check results into the hands of every reporter covering the incident. No one expresses any privacy concerns when a 20-year-old arrest is used to alter the public’s perception of a police shooting victim. But when it comes to cops themselves — public servants with immense power, layers of immunity, and publicly-funded opacity that separates them from the consequences of their actions — privacy is of utmost concern.