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‘Pretty staggering’: Thousands of California police officers could be stripped of their badges under new law

Sophia Bollag, San Francisco Chronicle

California’s police standards commission is bracing to decertify or suspend 3,000 to 3,500 police officers each year for serious misconduct under a new state law, according to estimates from the commission.

The estimates suggest the police officers engaging in serious misconduct in any given year could represent a significant percentage of the roughly 90,000 officers working in California, although some may already be fired or retired by the time the commission moves to strip them of their certification.

The estimates, detailed in a budget request from the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, are preliminary. The commission’s new power to decertify officers took effect at the start of the year, so the commission doesn’t yet know exactly how many cases it will receive each year or how many will ultimately rise to the level of decertification. So far this year, it has already received thousands of serious misconduct complaints that it is investigating.

Lizzie Buchen, who advocated for the police decertification law and now serves on the board that will review decertification cases when they are appealed, said she was surprised that the estimates are so high.

“If we have that many officers who have committed these very serious harms against the public, that’s really serious,” said Buchen, who previously worked on criminal justice issues for the American Civil Liberties Union. “They’re basically anticipating that 4% of officers in California fit into that category, which is pretty staggering.”

Julia Yoo, a San Diego-based civil rights attorney who serves as president of the National Police Accountability Project, said the estimates are worrisome, but don’t shock her.

“This is precisely why the community members and organizations like the National Police Accountability Project, the ACLU and so many others have called for statewide reform and accountability,” she wrote in an email to The Chronicle. “While not surprising, it should be concerning to our communities.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the law giving the commission the power to decertify police officers in 2021, bringing California in line with the vast majority of other states that already had a process to strip officers of their certification for serious misconduct. Such offenses can include using excessive force, purposefully obtaining a false confession, intimidating witnesses, joining a law enforcement gang and sexual assault.

The commission has the power to permanently revoke an officer’s certification, meaning they can never work again as a California police officer. As a lesser punishment, the commission can also suspend an officer’s certification for up to three years. 

Supporters of the law say decertification in such cases is important because it prevents police officers from staying on the job or joining a new police department after they are found to have committed crimes or serious violations of police standards.

The commission detailed its estimates in its request last month for an additional $6 million from the state budget to cover the cost of administering the decertification process. The commission says it expects to receive more than 16,000 reports of serious misconduct per year, about 3,500 of which will be sustained and will require the commission to initiate proceedings to decertify the officers. 

The commission expects the number of cases that will rise to the level of decertification will be even higher this year because it’s the first year of implementation and will include some cases from past years.

In the first five months of the year, the commission received more than 6,200 reports of serious misconduct from law enforcement agencies, according to the commission’s budget request. About 40% of those involve allegations of excessive use of force.

While some of the cases involve police officers who have already retired or been fired, others involve police officers who are still on the job, commission spokesperson Meagan Poulos said.

So far this year, the commission has moved to suspend or revoke 44 officers’ certification, including four in San Francisco. Five have been deemed ineligible to be police officers in California, two agreed to surrender their certification and 37 have had their certification temporarily suspended while their conduct is investigated.

The commission estimates that officers will appeal the commission’s sustained findings of serious misconduct in about 10% of cases. 

Brian Marvel, president of the Peace Officers Research Association of California, which opposed the police decertification law, said the estimates suggest that the commission isn’t prepared to handle the increased workload from the policy.

“These estimates, while they are only estimates, reflect how much work it is going to take for POST to investigate each one of these cases,” Marvel wrote in a statement. “We are apprehensive that POST has the budget, staffing capacity and administrative resources to both accomplish this implementation while also focusing on their original mandate — training California’s next generation of peace officers.”

The estimates come as the Newsom administration is seeking to roll back part of the law that would require the commission to provide investigative records in response to public records laws.

The change wouldn’t completely shield those records from disclosure because members of the public could still request them through local police departments, but criminal justice reform advocates and press freedom groups argue the change would make those records harder to access.

A coalition of 22 groups, including ACLU California Action, the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office and the First Amendment Coalition, sent a letter to legislative leaders on Wednesday arguing the changes “would deny promised transparency into the decertification process.”

“Please do not take the state backwards with respect to law enforcement transparency,” the groups wrote.

The commission argues the change would save the state money and allow it to carry out its mission more efficiently without being burdened by records requests that could be filled by other agencies, Poulos said. Some of the misconduct cases the commission handles involve “tens of thousands” of videos and documents, which are time-consuming to review and redact in response to public records requests, she said.

Assembly Member Mia Bonta, D-Alameda, said that while the governor and Legislature agree that the commission should receive more funding to cover the costs of the new decertification process, they are still negotiating over the administration’s proposed transparency changes.

Bonta, who leads the Assembly subcommittee that oversees the commission’s funding, said that she wants to ensure any changes made to the law still ensure the public can access documents related to decertification cases, which is essential to building trust between police and the communities they serve.

She said she was “dismayed” to see that the commission’s estimates of serious misconduct are so high, and that they underscore how much work police need to do to repair that relationship.

“We have a long pathway towards trust being rebuilt in our community,” she said.