Giving Compass' Take:

• Abbie VanSickle explains how advocates and policymakers in California are working to change restrictive laws that conceal police officers' records. 

• How available are police records in your state? What shifts in availability could improve the criminal justice system? 

• Learn how a better police force can help lower crime rates


When Jerry Coleman heard about a domestic violence prosecution winding its way through San Francisco’s criminal courts, he knew he’d finally found his test case.

In November 2012, San Francisco police officers arrested 20-year-old Daryl Lee Johnson, accusing him of hitting his girlfriend and grabbing her phone during an argument so she couldn’t call police, according to court records. (In California “injuring a wireless communications device” is a misdemeanor.)

Because Johnson’s girlfriend refused to testify, the only witnesses were two San Francisco police officers. Both officers had long records of misconduct. In the past two years, courts had held 24 hearings on material tucked away in the officers’ files. In each, a judge had ruled records must be turned over. All together, there were 505 pages of records in the two officers’ files that courts determined could be favorable for a defendant.

“We knew there was dirt, and we knew it was relevant, we just didn’t know what it was,” said Coleman, who then worked as a supervisor in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office.

It may come as a surprise to learn that California, despite its liberal reputation, goes farther than nearly any other state at shielding records of police misconduct. Although other states make police records confidential, California is the only state that clearly bars prosecutors from reviewing entire police personnel files.

Johnson was ultimately convicted of vandalism and sentenced to the 10 days he had served, but his case led to a lawsuit that could determine whether prosecutors have access—and how much—to records of law enforcement misconduct. That lawsuit, along with legislative efforts to crack open the records, may transform California from one of the least into one of the nation’s most open states for police records.

Read the full article about unlocking police records by Abbie VanSickle at The Marshall Project.