In Berkeley Police Association v. City of Berkeley, (— Cal.Rptr.3d —, 2008 WL 4482515 Cal.App. 1 Dist., Oct. 7, 2008) a California Court of Appeal considered a challenge by a police officers’ union to a city’s practice of having a civilian police review board investigate alleged police misconduct in hearings open to the public. The court ruled that pursuant to Penal Code Section 832.7, such proceedings, as well as their related records and findings, must be closed to the public; and officers involved in such investigations are entitled to procedural protections of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (“PBRA”).
The City of Berkeley (“City”) has a Police Review Commission (“PRC”) consisting of civilians appointed by city council members to investigate allegations of police misconduct. Its hearings have been open to the public.
The City’s police officers’ union, the Berkeley Police Association (“BPA”), filed suit alleging that pursuant to the PBRA and Section 832.7, the PRC was required to close its hearings to the public and keep records confidential. The trial court so ordered, and the City appealed.
Section 832.7 provides that peace officers’ personnel records “maintained by any state or local agency” are “confidential and shall not be disclosed in any criminal or civil proceeding.” Its applicability to this case was addressed by the California Supreme Court in Copley Press, Inc. v. Superior Court (2006) 39 Cal.4th1272. In Copley Press, the Supreme Court dismissed the distinction between a “local agency” and an independent oversight commission, because the commission was in effect acting as an arm of the local agency. Similarly, here, the PRC was effectively acting as an arm of the City, the court found.
The court also rejected the City’s contention that Section 832.7 applies only to confidential investigations that can lead to disciplinary actions, and since PRC has no disciplinary powers, it does not apply to PRC hearings. In Copley Press, the Supreme Court specified that it applies “to all aspects of disciplinary matters and citizen complaints,” without regard to a local jurisdiction’s mechanisms for addressing those matters. Had the court in Copley Press intended to limit its ruling to specific disciplinary matters, it would have added language of that effect to its opinion, the court said.
Since the records and findings of the PRC are protected from disclosure, it reasonably follows that PRC’s proceedings themselves must be closed to the public, the court added. Public hearings on alleged police misconduct would necessarily violate section 832.7 by disclosing information obtained from the confidential records.
Finally, the court ruled that officers under investigation by the PRC must be provided the procedural protections of PBRA, which apply to any peace officer under investigation “by his or her commanding officer, or any other member of the employing public safety department, that could lead to punitive action.” The court dismissed Berkeley’s distinction between the employing public safety department and the PRC, noting that officers were ordered by their superiors, under the threat of discipline or termination, to cooperate with the PRC. That made the PRC proceedings “tantamount to being subjected to interrogation by the officer’s commanding officer or another member of the employing public safety department,” the court found.
The trial court was therefore correct to rule that Section 832.7 required that PRC’s proceedings be closed and its records and findings kept confidential, and that officers being investigated by the PRC were entitled to PBRA protections. The trial court’s order to that effect was affirmed.
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