The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California and Berkeleyside sued the city of Berkeley on January 30 over the city’s refusal to release police records predating 2019.
The lawsuit was filed in the Alameda County Superior Court and argues that Senate Bill (SB) 1421 authorizes members of the public to request and receive specific police records. The plaintiffs are suing the city over its failure to provide the requested records, along with other allegations.
However, the Berkeley City Council held a closed meeting a day after the filing of the lawsuit and voted unanimously to recognize the release of any police records predating 2019. Michael Risher, one of the four attorneys for the plaintiffs, said that he discussed the case with the Berkeley City Attorney after the vote. Risher affirmed that the city is going to review its records that predate 2019 and release any non-exempt records on a rolling basis.
First Amendment Coalition (FAC) Executive Director David Snyder supported the plaintiffs because, from his perspective, the California legislature clearly intended SB 1421 to apply to all existing records, not just records that were created after the bill’s effective date. Snyder believes that this is clear in two ways: the bill makes no time distinction, and statements made during the legislative process expressed precisely that legislators understood the bill to apply to then-existing records.
George Perezvelez, a senior member of the Berkeley Police Review Commission (PRC) and current Chair for the 2019 term, believes that the Berkeley City Council looked at SB 1421 and decided that it did encompass any and all pertinent records, and instructed the Berkeley City Manager and the Berkeley Police Department to comply with all information requests covered by the legislation. Perezvelez said that the decision to not release records prior to 2019 before a full review by the City Attorney did not preclude or hinder the work of the PRC or its ability to provide oversight. “The city erred on the side of caution while the review was in process,” said the PRC chair.
Snyder said that although he couldn’t speak to Berkeley’s motives to refuse to release police records pre-dating 2019 specifically, he noted that there is great resistance among some police officers and their unions to having records about police misconduct made public. He said, “That’s an understandable human impulse, but it’s not consistent with the new law.”
The PRC Executive Director noticed that there are at least two other agencies in California refusing to disclose police records pre-dating this year: the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department and the state Attorney General’s office. Snyder also noted that there are at least six counties in the state where police unions have obtained temporary restraining orders from courts that at least temporarily prevent the release of pre-2019 records, “irrespective of whether the relevant police departments want to release them or not.”
Perezvelez said that the PRC ensures transparency via dialogue with the department, reporting by the Chief of Police, review of any and all operational orders, and more. He also believes that oversight is about an honest and focused engagement between the community and the Berkeley Police Department.
“Law enforcement agencies need to know that the community supports their efforts to ensure public safety at the same time that the community needs to know that law enforcement agencies respect and value their input,” Perezvelez said.
Snyder thinks that government transparency is essential for a healthy democracy. Without it, citizens cannot oversee the government and effect change in the way the government works. According to him, citizens can ensure transparency by attending meetings, asking for records, and writing to representatives.