NEWS MEDIA UPDATE · CALIFORNIA · Freedom of Information · Feb. 16, 2007
Berkeley review board ordered closed to the public
Feb. 16, 2007 · The City of Berkeley’s citizen review board has been ordered by a judge in Oakland, Calif., not to hold public meetings or release public information about police officer misconduct investigations.
Judge Winifred Smith wrote in an opinion issued last week that public disclosure of information from the city’s Police Review Commission, including information presented in public hearings, violated multiple California statutes protecting confidentiality for law enforcement officers’ employment records.
Smith determined that the commission’s investigations constituted personnel records and were therefore confidential because, despite the city’s assertions that the commission was separate from the police department, the civilian review board was ultimately another branch of city government for the purposes of state law.
“Regardless of whether the investigation is being conducted by the Police Department or the Police Review Commission, it is being conducted by the peace officer’s Employee Agency, the City of Berkeley,” Smith wrote.
Berkeley City Attorney Manuela Albuquerque argued that the citizen commission was an independent body apart from the internal disciplinary process of the Berkeley Police Department and without the ability to “impose or recommend disciplinary action,” and accordingly should remain open to the public.
“This is a sad day for public accountability,” Albuquerque said in an e-mail. “The decision…shields police conduct from scrutiny even though police officers wield awesome and intrusive powers and even though other public officials have no such protection.”
Berkeley joins Los Angeles and Oakland as major California cities that have stopped conducting public hearings in officer misconduct cases. The trend began last year when the California Supreme Court ruled in the case of Copley Press v. County of San Diego that police personnel information is not open to the public. Smith cited the Copley case for support in closing off the Berkley citizen review process, including hearings, from the public.
Smith’s decision marks the end of a nearly five-year-old trial court fight between the Berkeley Police Association and the City of Berkeley.
Albuquerque said she will be meeting with the city council and the commission next week “to consider the city’s legal options, including appeal.”
Oakland attorney John Burris, who regularly litigates high-profile police misconduct cases, said the push by police associations for more secrecy has been a long time in the making.
“The police have never wanted the public review boards, never,” Burris said. “It’s been a tremendous fight for them and an aggressive fight for all these years.”
Burris said closing off public review boards will have dangerous consequences for the state. “I think it will encourage more misconduct and more of this sense of entitlement on the part of police officers that they are above public scrutiny,” Burris said.
(Berkeley Police Association v. City of Berkeley) — LC