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EDITORIAL: The forces of secrecy race to moblize in California

California’s effort to make police departments more accountable for officer misconduct continues to highlight how far some public agencies will go to keep those who pay the bills in the dark.

We recently pointed out how the Inglewood City Council voted to destroy decades worth of records rather than have them made available to the press and public under a new state open records statute. The law holds that documents may not be kept confidential if they relate to incidents in which an officer fires a weapon, engages in conduct that results in death or serious injury, commits a sexual assault or is found to have lied or committed perjury.

But Inglewood wasn’t alone. Turns out Long Beach also decided to shred such records before the law was formally on the books. And at least two police departments have challenged the statute in court, arguing it applies only to new records.

Reason.com reports that the “California Supreme Court has declined to hear a suit from San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department employees, in which they argue the law is not retroactive.” But a judge in Los Angeles did “grant an injunction that stops the Los Angeles Police Department from releasing records prior to Jan. 1” until a hearing is held on the issue.

The great majority of law enforcement officers are conscientious and hardworking men and women trying their best to do a difficult and often dangerous job in a fair and honest manner. Protect and serve is more than just a slogan. But agencies that tolerate or protect those who betray the public trust do so at great cost to citizen confidence in the criminal justice system.

The California law is an excellent step forward in good government and showcases the challenges inherent in confronting the innate bureaucratic resistance to transparency.

Nevada lawmakers should consider similar public record legislation when they reconvene next month in Carson City. Lots and lots of bad ideas come out of California. But this isn’t one of them.

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