Local case triggers state legislation to increase police transparency

Jan 10, 2020

The California Legislature is back in session for 2020, and in the pipeline is a bill aimed at increasing police transparency. It's based upon an alleged sexual assault case involving a former Paso Robles police officer and the refusal of local law enforcement to hand over internal investigation records. 

In February of 2019, Central Coast state Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham authored AB 1599.

“It would have made it a separate crime for a police officer to get sexual favors,” Cunningham told KCBX News by phone. “That is not covered in my view by current law, which is odd.”

That version of the bill didn’t make it very far in the Assembly—it died in the public safety committee. Cunningham retooled it and reintroduced a new version this week.

“1599 is a public disclosure bill,” Cunninghamd said. “It builds on work done in a prior bill, SB 1421.”

SB 1421 is California’s landmark police transparency law that went into effect at the beginning of last year. It mandated police records be made public in cases of sustained findings against officers who commit sexual assault, use excessive force or engage in dishonesty-related conduct.

“However, SB 1421 as we came to learn did have a bit of a loophole,” Cunningham said. “We saw this here locally, with a case that was fairly prominent in San Luis Obispo County, where an officer who was alleged to have committed sexual assault on the job resigned in the middle of the internal affairs investigation.”

The case is of former Paso Robles police officer Christopher McGuire. He was accused in 2018 of allegedly sexually assaulting three women. The accusations were made public after a partial copy of a San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s report about the incidents was leaked to the San Luis Obispo Tribune. Tribune reporters—along with other newsrooms including KCBX News—have repeatedly tried to access those reports, from both the Paso Robles Police Department and the Sheriff’s Office, but those public records requests have been denied because McGuire resigned before there were any sustained findings.

“He basically got this sweetheart deal with the [police department] for them to not disclose any of the allegations against him; just verify that he was there, when he was there so he can go on to another [city],” said San Luis Obispo Tribune reporter Matt Fountain.

Fountain and Tribune reporter Lindsey Holden spoke to KCBX News at length in March of 2019 after the statewide police transparency law went into effect and Cunningham had drafted the first version of his bill.

“We’re pretty concerned with passing along bad apples, as they call them,” Fountain said. ”We want to make sure that this officer who may have dodged pretty serious charges, or some kind of discipline, [is] not just shuffled off to another district so he does this again to somebody else.”

"As a journalist, transparency from public agencies is so important, whether it’s a school district or a police department,” Holden said. “Taxpayer-funded organizations need to be clear with the public about how they conduct themselves.”

Cunningham said his revision has support from media outlets and public defenders. But he may get pushback from some law enforcement officials who may feel access to these records could disrupt internal affairs investigations.

“We may amend the bill to address some of their concerns,” Cunninghamd said. “My hope is at worst, they’ll be neutral or maybe a soft opposition. By and large these people do a good job and they do it with integrity. The good cops out there have an interest in making sure the public knows about the few bad cops there are so that we make sure our police forces are comprised of people who deserve to have a badge.”

Cunningham, a Republican, may receive some opposition from his own party as well. When the police transparency bill was passed in 2018, he was one of only four Republicans in the Assembly who supported it.

“SB 1421 was a lot broader in some ways, and it was a pretty big change from the status quo. I think some people had reservations for that reason,” Cunningham said. “This is kind of a clean-up if you will. This bill—AB 1599—is a fix of an unintended consequence of how SB 1421 was drafted.”

Cunningham’s reintroduced bill has been referred to the Assembly's Committee on Public Safety.

SB 1421 went into effect on January 1, 2019. Since then, more than 40 California news outlets—including KCBX News and the San Luis Obispo Tribune—have joined together to form the California Reporting Project. As a group, these news organizations have been working to collect and compile records of police misconduct across the state. You can read about the project here.