State Law Hides Investigations of Police Misconduct from Public Scrutiny

A former state senator is calling on lawmakers to change the law and make police departments transparent.

When compared to other states, Police Departments in California are among the least transparent in the country. When citizens complain about the conduct of sworn police officers, those complaints might go away and are never heard of again. In the last five years alone, the Investigative Unit discovered 17.916 citizen's complaints filed against the four major law enforcement agencies in the Bay Area, in addition to California's Highway Patrol.

Yet, a state law called the Police Officer’s Bill of Rights protects police from those who allege misconduct.

Looking for Answers

Tech entrepreneurs Peretz Partensky and Ben Woosley came up against POBOR when he complained about what he says was an unfair arrest. He says he saw two bicyclists injured along Folsom street in San Francisco near his house. He didn’t even know the two bicyclists, but he called 911 for medical help.

“The next thing I know, [the police] grabbed me from behind and wrenched my arm back,” said Ben Woosley. He said he and Partensky were trying to get answers from the police, but the two were handcuffed and set on the ground.

“Since then,” Partensky said, “I’ve not actually been able to get any information about the incident.”

It’s not an uncommon story. Retired Marine Garret Bondaug was also left with unanswered questions when police unexpectedly showed up at his mother’s Santa Clara home one night.

“We were literally watching PBS,” Bondaug said. That’s when the police showed up at about 11pm. “As soon as we ask ‘what for?’, [the officer] whipped out his ASD, aluminum baton, and started beating me.”

Transparency in law enforcement is an issue NBC Bay Area has been investigating for over a year after the Investigative Unit heard the story of police brutality, OIegs Kozachenko. The truck driver and Berkeley resident said he was trying to ask about a traffic ticket an officer was writing him along I-80 west of Truckee. He had trouble because English is his second language

“I apologized and said that I didn’t understand,” Kozachenko told us through an interpreter.

Instead of answers, Kozachenko ended up unconscious on the pavement with his hands cuffed behind his back. When he stopped breathing, police rushed him to a level one trauma center.

Kozachenko and Garrett Bondaug have each filed lawsuits against the police departments involved. Partensky and Woosley filed citizens’ complaints. None of the police departments involved have even offered acknowledgement that the complaints have been renewed by internal investigators. “If this can happen to me,” said Bondaug, “what is happening to other people out there who do not have the resources to fight?”

The State Law that Protects Police From Scrutiny

Transparency is uneven across police agencies. POBOR allows police to keep secret the details of internal investigations or even official findings of misconduct. “It’s a sad, sad statement for any police department to not have some level of transparency. And when I say ‘some,’ I mean, it should be pushed as far as you can get it under the law,” said LaDoris Cordell, head of the Independent Police Auditor Office in San Jose. Cordell says San Jose police don’t invoke state law to avoid scrutiny, but many do.

POBOR was passed in 1976[pdf] and was designed to protect officers in Southern California who had become targets of mass protests and threats. A 2006 Supreme Court ruling kept even more information from the public by preventing civilian police commissions from publically disclosing their misconduct findings. In some cases, the ruling prevents commissions from even gaining access to officers’ personal files.

“The intentions are good,” John McGinnes said, a consultant for the California Police Officers Association (CPOA). “Is there potential for abuse? Absolutely. Have there been abuses? I believe so. But I think savvy, wise, communicative law enforcement leaders can work through this, and have.”

The CPOA is a training and lobbying service for law enforcement across the state. The organization official supports POBOR’s protections.

Misconduct Complaints are Rising

The Investigative Unit asked for internal affairs records from San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and Santa Clara’s police departments, plus the California Highway Patrol. It took weeks—in some cases months—for the departments to comply. But, as a group, the documents demonstrate a rising trend of citizens complaining about officer misconduct.

From 2011 to 2012 (the last year complete data is available) complaints about officer misconduct grew by 27%. The number of “sustained complaints” (meaning there was sufficient evidence to prove the allegation) grew by a remarkable 68% in that same time period.

The data we analyzed show that complaints specifically about the use of force are increasing. In 2010 there were 515 such complaints. In 2011 there were 800 and in 2012 there were 866.

Almost all of these excessive force complaints were officially cleared. But in most cases, details about the review process, interviews, evidence collected and the names of officers were all kept secret.

“It’s disappointing, and it’s also a little scary when you have police departments that decline to give you any information about complaints that people have about an officer’s misconduct,” said Cordell with the San Jose Independent Police Auditor, “And the first thing that comes up is ‘what are you hiding?’”

Data on federal lawsuits tell a similar story. Between 2009 and 2013 the number of civil rights and personal injury lawsuits naming California law enforcement agencies (police, sheriff, highway patrol) has almost doubled. Just 48 such lawsuits were filed in 2009 but 2013 saw 85. Since 2000, more than 800 such lawsuits have been filed in federal courts.

Former State Senator Gloria Romero tried to change POBOR during her time in Sacramento, but said the police union opposition was too strong to overcome. “Most states in the nation allow for the knowledge of these misconduct reports,” said Gloria Romero. “That essentially translates to, we have a secret police force and I think that surprises people in a democracy such as California’s.” Partensky and Woosley, the two San Francisco residents who called 911 for some injured bicyclists, never did get the answers they were looking for. The SF Police Department told us that the two were detained for interfering with medical rescue crews. There was no internal police review and no police officers were disciplined.

In the case of retired Marine Garret Bondaug, Santa Clara won’t comment because of the pending lawsuit. And the California Highway Patrol won’t say if they even conducted an internal investigation for the beating of Russian truck driver Kozachenko.

Tomorrow, San Jose’s Independent Police Auditor presents her findings to the city council, and NBC Bay Area will dig into those numbers. Tune in at 11pm and online for the results.

Contact Us