The trial of Thomas Leipelt got underway Monday morning in the county Hall of Justice. Leipelt is the Santa Clara police officer arrested last summer in San Jose on a charge of indecent exposure. Leipelt was off-duty at the time.
The surprise about the arrest isn’t that it took eight months for the information to surface. The surprise is that it surfaced at all.
That’s because laws passed in the 1970s – the law enforcement officers’ bill of rights, promoted by the Fraternal Order of Police and local public safety unions – along with decisions by the California Supreme Court exempt police officer misconduct records from the California Public Records Act (CPRA). A judge’s order is required to release them.
Sections 832.7 and 832.8 of the California penal code define all information about “peace and custodial officers” – including complaints and disciplinary actions as confidential personnel records, and thus not subject to the CPRA. The police report and the court docket are public, but those can only be found if you know the case number. To get the case number, you need a name.
The argument for these extra protections is the nature of a police officer’s job is uniquely dangerous, and one that makes officers ready targets of retaliation, unproven allegations and complaints, and fishing expeditions by criminal defense attorneys.
Critics say that the secrecy is a double standard that promotes distrust of police, a lack of police accountability, and keeps unfit and dangerous officers on the street. With mobile phone cameras making it easy to capture officer-involved shootings and incidents of alleged police brutality, there is increasing demand to open up records about complaints and disciplinary actions against police officers.
State Senator Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) has introduced a bill, SB 1286, to increase accessibility of records about serious police misconduct, and would enable local governments to hold public hearings about complaints. Courts would still be allowed to withhold records if the judge decides that their release would endanger officers or others.
However, similar bills have failed in the past after lobbying from law enforcement organizations. Public safety unions are big spenders in state and local elections – $6 million in the 2012 election alone, according to a Sacramento Bee report. Santa Clara’s State Senator Bob Wieckowski received almost $51,000 from law enforcement unions between 2009 and 2012.