COMMENTARY: There is a great need for transparency in our local law enforcement agencies; what will we do about it?

July 24, 2020 /

The official police academy’s motto is: “To Protect and to Serve,” yet time and time again, many law enforcement officers have failed to uphold this motto.

As residents of Kern County, we cannot idly stand by as discrepancies in our community are revealed — specifically within our police force. As a person of color, a woman, and resident of Kern County, I admit I am fearful of those who are “sworn” in to protect us. There is no accountability or rule of law. Not only am I concerned, but I am furious that not enough has been done to prevent such atrocities.

Misconduct and crime is not uncommon in law enforcement; in fact, it is a cruel reality, and our county is no exception. Let us examine the Bakersfield Police Department.

BPD’s Internal Affairs Annual Statistical Report provides statistical data and information on complaints filed against officers within the department. Between 2015 to 2018 reports, there were 413 internal affairs investigations.

There are three types of IA Investigations: citizen complaints, internal investigations, and division discipline. 

In 2018, the most common complaints were discourteous treatment, careless workmanship, excessive force, and unsatisfactory work performance. In the same year, there were 559 Use of Force incidents involving 1,146 officers. 

One issue, uncommonly spoken of, is sexual assault charges against cops. The Guardian’s 2015 investigation not only deemed the Kern County Sheriff’s Office America’s deadliest police force, but it also identified a string of sexual misconduct cases involving officers, and a pattern of secretive pay off programs. 

Eight victims were promised small sums of cash in exchange for their silence to absolve any civil liability of the department. Their assault experiences were difficult to read and the actions of the department were unbelievable. 

This new investigation resulted in multiple civil lawsuits, soon after it was uncovered. Additionally, women recruits and trainees came forward with their own experiences within the department. This involved sexual harassment, sexualization, and being ordered to follow improper protocols. 

Although the Guardian’s report uncovered much information, it’s still extremely hard to find data on law enforcement. There is virtually no official nationwide data collected, maintained, disseminated, and/or available for research analyses on crimes committed by law enforcement officers. This means researchers must develop new methodologies to obtain and compile such information. 

Data that came out of the Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested was collected from published news articles using the Google News search engine and its Google Alerts email update service. 

The fact that statistics are difficult to collect is worrisome to me because these are horrifying truths that the public deserves to be aware of.

Through further research, I found legislation that has direct correlation to this issue.

Senate Bill 1421, passed in 2018, went into effect Jan. 1, 2019. It states, “The public has a strong, compelling interest in law enforcement transparency because it is essential to having a just and democratic society.” It unwrapped decades of confidentiality laws, dating back to 1978; however, there are still restrictions on the information that can be obtained. 

It needs to be noted that the bill does not grant unlimited access to police personnel files. It does permit access to use-of-force, sexual assault, and official dishonesty records. The California Report Project explains, “All use-of-force records are accessible under the new law, even if the officer was found to have acted within policy. That’s not true of the other two categories, which require a finding of misconduct for the records to be made public. That means citizen complaints and other allegations are not available to the public unless they have been substantiated by an internal investigation.” 

The California Reporting Project is a statewide coalition of 40 newsrooms committed to working together to obtain and report on police records newly available to the public. The founding organizations are the Bay Area News Group / Southern California News Group, Capital Public Radio, Investigative Studios at UC Berkeley, KPCC + LAist, KQED, and Los Angeles Times.

With continued growth, they requested the newly sealed records and even formed a legal coalition to strengthen the effort. This collaboration is significant because it exposes misconduct, it is informative, and allows an examination. 

Although SB 1421 was a huge step in the right direction, obtaining the information is still a complicated and lengthy process. Additionally, national data is not being collected; therefore, no solutions can be introduced.

The Bakersfield Police Officer Association actually joined an effort to stop the release of specific police records related to Senate Bill 1421. Along with other police unions in California, they filed a claim in Kern County, “The complaint filed on Friday March 13 is asking a judge to stop the city of Bakersfield from releasing records related to incidents prior to Jan. 1, 2019,” 23 ABC reported.

There is a great need for transparency. Citizens deserve the right to know the details of any alleged misconduct, and internal investigations. Secrecy and cover-ups seems to be a recurrent problem in our community and nation. Without accountability, this terrible cycle will never end. Arguably, we need a new legislation that ensures easier collection of such data so that discrepancies can be identified and the public is informed. Solutions need to be introduced. Understanding what the current laws permit and how the system is performed is the first step we can take.

Featured photo by Henry A. Barrios for Kern Sol News