The late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban reportedly quipped that Palestinians “never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” I thought of that zinger after watching California conservatives pass on yet another opportunity to take advantage of egregious Democratic failings. The GOP — and not just here in California — seems incapable of tapping into any legitimate public concern about government secrecy and abuses, provided such abuses come at the hands of police officers and other law enforcement.
In the latest news, two reporters from UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program made a routine public-records request to the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training. POST provided the reporters with a list of thousands of current and past officers and police job applicants with criminal convictions in the past decade, which are used in background checks when hiring officers. This is how the system should work: Reporters make a legitimate request and receive important information from a public agency, which provided the information.
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t end there. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a progressive Democrat, ordered the reporters to destroy the records they legally obtained. He has threatened legal action, claimed the records were confidential, and said that POST inadvertently released them, according to news reports. Becerra also has been resisting immediate compliance with a new law that gives the public the right to view disciplinary records. This is typical. Despite some newfound enthusiasm for criminal-justice reform, the state’s Democrats have largely been the tools of police unions.
Republicans should be touting the scandal, as a leader in the Trump resistance bullies reporters, quashes records, and defends criminals. Sadly, conservatives usually let leftists, such as Becerra and former Attorney General Kamala Harris, get away with such hypocrisy even though there’s little reason for it. Public-safety unions dumped $5.7 million into California campaigns in the last political cycle alone, according to news reports. That money goes mostly to Democrats, yet law-and-order Republicans apparently do the union bidding on the cheap.
Whenever there’s a high-profile police use-of-force incident, both sides take their predictable sides. Republicans “back the badge,” even in shooting cases that are hard to fathom. Democrats sympathize with Black Lives Matter and feign outrage. Democrats are pulling a con job, but the GOP is too addled by its own hypocrisy to point it out. Why aren’t Republicans spotlighting how presidential candidate and current U.S. Sen. Harris “fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct,” as a New York Times columnist put it?
Conservatives claim to be supporters of limited government and individual freedom, yet California’s government increasingly is unlimited and hostile to liberty. There’s no reason to give a blanket pass to the state’s enforcement arm. Democrats know they need the support of the people who will enforce all the new laws they pass, but Republicans should know better than to allow these powerful police agencies to operate without accountability.
As CALmatters noted last year, many of California’s policies are, quite obviously, the most liberal in the nation, “But even with a statehouse controlled entirely by Democrats, California laws are friendlier to law enforcement — and less transparent to the public — than those in Wisconsin and Florida, states with Republican governors and legislatures.”
Back to those documents that Becerra wants destroyed. “Their crimes ranged from shoplifting to embezzlement to murder,” reported KQED. “Some of them molested kids and downloaded child pornography. Others beat their wives girlfriends or children.… The list includes cops who trafficked drugs, cops who stole money from their departments and even one who robbed a bank wearing a fake beard. Some sexually assaulted suspects. Others took bribes, filed false reports and committed perjury. A large number drove under the influence of drugs and alcohol — sometimes killing people on the road.”
There were 12,000 names on the list, with 3,500 names that “appear to match the names of police officers in state personnel databases, and about 2,250 of those have been on the force within the last five years,” according to the report. It’s unclear which were applicants and which might have jobs. But would you want your family member pulled over on a dark two-lane highway by a police officer who happens to be a convicted rapist or murderer? The public ought to know.
For a parallel, conservatives know that most public-school teachers are decent people but that they are members of unions and are part of a system that protects the worst performers. In one Los Angeles case, a judge noted that only 1 percent to 3 percent of teachers are “grossly ineffective,” but they do much damage to thousands of students. Yet, California Democrats — thanks to their close alliance with the California Teachers’ Association — won’t seriously address this problem even as they present themselves to voters as advocates for better education.
It’s the same concept when it comes to police agencies. Most cops do their jobs well, but they are members of unions and part of a system that protects the worst among them. Some unions provide insurance programs that fund legal defenses for police accused of wrongdoing. Union work rules make it nearly impossible to fire bad actors. Even though a small percentage of officers may be involved in a large number of incidents, Democratic attorney generals keep the information secret, protecting these cops at the expense of the public.
The situation is a travesty, but it offers conservatives an opportunity to burnish their limited-government credentials, highlight the hypocrisy of their Democratic opponents, improve public safety, and make inroads in poorer communities that take the brunt of police misbehavior. This much is for certain, however: They’ll miss this opportunity to take advantage of that opportunity.
Steven Greenhut is Western region director for the R Street Institute. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.