Hundreds of people walked through the streets of La Mesa in May 2020 to protest the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer in Minneapolis.⁣⁣ / Photo by Adriana Heldiz

Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon this week announced a new select committee assembled to tackle police reform, after the Legislature ended the session without final votes on major efforts like a bill to decertify officers who commit serious misconduct.

Many observers noted that those failures drove home how influential police officer unions remain in Sacramento.

The makeup of the new committee drives that influence home once again: All 12 members – spanning both sides of the aisle – have taken thousands of dollars in donations from police union groups in the last two years alone.

Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, a Democrat, received six donations totaling $21,200 for her re-election campaign – the biggest total of anyone on the committee, though Assemblyman Tom Lackey, himself a former California Highway Patrol officer, brought in slightly more if you also count individual donations from officers.

Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel took the least amount of money – two donations totaling $2,000 – of anyone on the committee.

The two San Diego members of the committee, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, pulled in $15,300 and $9,400, respectively, from police union groups this cycle. (Gonzalez also controls a ballot measure committee, which received additional donations from police union groups.)

For most of the members of the new committee, the donations represent a small fraction of their totals – and some also received donations from groups that presumably have much different priorities, like criminal justice reform coalitions or defense attorneys.

Many have also established records of voting for police reform regardless of the donations.

Weber, for instance, has drawn police unions’ ire throughout her tenure in the Capitol after passing numerous reform laws. She received four donations from the California Correctional Peace Officers Association PAC during and after the fight over AB 392, the landmark law Weber wrote to change the standards guiding police use of deadly force. Police unions strongly opposed various versions of the bill, but dropped their opposition after negotiations with legislators resulted in changes.

“Do contributions like these play a role in legislators’ decisions when they’re voting on bills? We can’t read minds, but when you receive something of substantial value from a group, it’s human nature to have that in the back of your mind when you’re deciding on a matter relating to that group,” said Matt Strabone, an ethics and elections attorney and general counsel of RepresentUs, in an email. “So, at the very least, the optics aren’t great, but I would hesitate to characterize anyone as ‘in the pocket of’ police unions solely on the basis of some political contributions.”

During a legislative hearing on the bill to decertify police officers who commit serious misconduct, Gonzalez – herself a former union leader – expressed wariness over several provisions but ultimately voted to advance the measures. After the new committee on police reform was announced this week, Gonzalez wrote on Twitter that she hoped to tackle “a badly needed police decertification program that is fair and properly aligns state and local laws.”

Still, the fact that even some of the biggest advocates of reform in the Capitol count powerful unions among their donors isn’t likely to sit well with those urging change.

Author Miriam Pawel, writing in the New York Times, took note of this dynamic in the California Legislature specifically and suggested significant reforms won’t happen until something disrupts the system: “The culture will not change until enough elected officials are unafraid to risk the wrath of police unions, until financial support from law enforcement becomes toxic rather than coveted, until ‘defund the politicians’ becomes as much a rallying cry as ‘defund the police.’”

Strabone said the vast majority of state lawmakers likely have at least a few donations from police unions.

“The simple fact is that California law allows any person, group, business, or entity to contribute thousands of dollars to state lawmakers, and if you’re a group like a police union with business before the state Legislature, the system here incentivizes — almost requires — you to play the political game and make contributions like these, even regardless of party affiliation or ideological bent,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for Speaker Anthony Rendon told me that the select committee plans to meet before the end of the year, but that further logistics are still being worked out.

Kara Grant contributed to this report.

Advocates Sue to Shut Down State Gang Database

The state gang database is supposed to be a tool for law enforcement – but it’s repeatedly been called out for itself breaking the law.

The database contains name of people, overwhelmingly Black and Brown men, whom law enforcement officials suspect of being gang members. Criminal records aren’t required for inclusion in the database.

A new lawsuit against the state attorney general and Department of Justice seeks to block use of the database until a legally required audit and other actions take place.

In 2016, a scathing state audit requested by San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber found numerous flaws and errors within the system.

Weber went on to pass AB 90, which handed oversight of the system to the Department of Justice and mandated other changes.

The lawsuit contends those mandated changes haven’t happened, and as a result, the system “lacks the minimum accountability measures required by the rule of law.”

“Despite the clear instruction from the Legislature to the Department of Justice to operate CalGang in compliance with the law or not at all, and despite serious and ongoing failings of CalGang of the type that regulations are intended to stop, neither Attorney General Becerra nor the Department of Justice have fulfilled their duty to prohibit the use of CalGang since January 1, 2020 and until regulations are promulgated,” the suit says.

The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles County, where one of the most glaring and disturbing abuses of the database was recently revealed.

Several Los Angeles Police Department officers are accused of deliberately placing false information in the database in order to improperly designate people as gang members. The attorney general has since barred agencies across the state from using LAPD records.

(Disclosure: My husband works for the state Department of Justice.)

Gov Signs Gonzalez, Jones Bills (and Vetoes Another)

Bill signings are continuing to roll in, and Gov. Gavin Newsom this week signed two measures from San Diego lawmakers into law, and vetoed another.

He signed:

  • AB 2149 by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, which requires a food delivery company to obtain the express written consent of a food facility before delivering food from the establishment; and
  • SB 878 by Sen. Brian Jones, which requires each board within the Department of Consumer Affairs that issues a license to display its application processing timeframes on the board’s website

Newsom also vetoed a bill passed by Gonzalez:

  • AB 1066, which would have required the Employment Development Department to provide maximum unemployment insurance benefits to claimants whose employers fail to provide employment records. Newsom wrote in a veto message that the measure would create a financial burden the state can’t afford to bear during the pandemic.

Golden State News

Sara Libby was VOSD’s managing editor until 2021. She oversaw VOSD’s newsroom and content.

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