LOS ANGELES — After her son, Eric, was killed by the police in Los Angeles two years ago when officers mistook a water pistol he was holding for a real gun, Valerie Rivera channeled her grief into activism. She joined Black Lives Matter and lobbied the State Legislature to open to the public California’s records on police shootings, which have long been hidden.
She wanted, she recently wrote in a court filing, to “understand what really happened, and to advocate for change so that officers do not kill civilians, and are held accountable when they do, so that other families do not have to suffer as mine has.”
Her efforts paid off. Under a new state law, Ms. Rivera and other members of the public can now request to see the investigative records, prying open for the first time California’s strict secrecy laws regarding police shootings and serious misconduct by officers.
But, just as activists and state lawmakers have sought to bring decades-old investigative records to light, police unions have tried to jam the door shut. While police departments have said they would comply, police unions up and down the state, including in Los Angeles, have filed lawsuits challenging the law, arguing that it shouldn’t be applied retroactively. The union lawsuits have succeeded in some jurisdictions in getting temporary stays from the court.
The debate has opened up old wounds in a state that has been plagued by a high rate of killings by police officers, and it has showed how contentious and complex criminal justice reform can be, even after reform measures are passed.
California may be one of the most liberal states in the nation — its politics have shifted substantially in recent decades amid sweeping demographic changes — but paradoxes abound, especially when it comes to police matters and criminal justice. The state has the largest death row in the country, and voters, in a ballot measure, have demanded that the state speed up executions.
It also has one of the highest rates of police shootings in the country. Though there is no central database to track police shootings nationally, an analysis of data from 2013 to 2017 by Mapping Police Violence, an advocacy group that maintains a database of police killings, ranked the Bakersfield Police Department as the fifth deadliest in the country.
Now, at least on paper, California has gone from one of the most secretive states on police shootings to one of the most open. New York, by contrast, strictly limits the amount of information on police shootings that is made public.
Some other states, including Alabama, Georgia and Florida, are more transparent than California, according to research by the American Civil Liberties Union. These states allow open access to a broad range of police files, including disciplinary records of individual officers, and not just those concerned with police shootings.