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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

By The Riverside Press-Enterprise on open records request:

 

A core element of a free and open society is the concept of open records and meetings. In delegating authority to the government, the people ``do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know,'' as the preamble to the state's seminal open-meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, makes clear.

Because that concept makes those who work for the government uncomfortable, officials routinely chip away at the public's access to information. That's particularly true with police records, as state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, for instance, refused to release records about disciplinary actions and uses of force that a new state law, Senate Bill 1421, requires him to release. The union-allied AG's action wasn't unexpected, nor was a court's rebuke of his decision.

But some government officials' assault on the new state law comes in various and unexpected forms. The Long Beach City Council recently approved a contract with its police union that includes the normal elements of a police contract - raises, additional benefits and so forth. But it also includes a real desk-pounder. It requires the city to give police officers at least a five-day notice to review any records about themselves.

And get this - the new union contract also provides the officer with the name of the person requesting the document. A letter from a dozen community groups said that approving this contract shows ``the city of Long Beach that City Council members are in the business of valuing police privilege over legal transparency, protecting violent police officers, and overlooking the community's safety.'' That's exactly what's happening here.

This provision is a clear attempt to discourage members of the public, and good-government organizations and watchdog groups, from exercising their rights as citizens to access legitimate public information about how police officers and their departments have behaved. Officers have important jobs, but they work for the city's residents.

Indeed, the importance of their roles - and the powers they hold, including the use of deadly force - should require more public oversight, not less. Long Beach activists have rightly decried the ``chilling'' nature of the contract provision.

It's not unreasonable for people to fear that requests for legitimate public information could lead to intimidation and harassment. The Long Beach City Council approved it on a 7-1 vote. Councilmember Jeannine Pearce was the only one to dissent.

A Long Beach official said the city wouldn't tolerate police officers who abuse the information and that the city allows anonymous records requests. That promise isn't particularly reassuring given how difficult it is to learn about officers who engage in misbehavior. And, sorry, the people should not have to exercise their rights anonymously.

What about the records requests that will never be filed under fear of retaliation? These kind of special privileges also undermine the public's trust in police agencies. It's particularly disturbing when people who are responsible for enforcing the laws use backdoor methods to undermine laws they don't like.

Union negotiations should focus on pay and benefits - and not be used to strike at the heart of the public's fundamental and legitimate right to access government records.