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Thursday, Apr 18 2013 11:00 PM

ANOTHER VIEW: Usually a good reason when police won't comment

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    Greg Williamson

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By GREG WILLIAMSON

"Police and sheriff's officials refused to confirm." "Investigators declined to release any details." "The police captain said she couldn't comment." Those are all statements that appeared in The Californian just within the past few months describing instances where law enforcement officials have not openly discussed incidents of interest to the public. These phrases immediately spark concern that police lack transparency, are hiding something, are protecting officers or are refusing to hold employees accountable. This couldn't be further from the truth. It would be considerably easier if I could provide interviews on every newsworthy item, providing every detail from start to finish, up to, and including, the disciplinary actions taken or not against officers accused of misconduct. It's not that easy.

Cause for distrust in police is often brought through the media when witnesses to events of interest make statements they claim to be factual. Oftentimes, media outlets refuse to divulge sources of information to the department, thus frustrating our ability to obtain verified factual evidence necessary to complete our investigations. Additionally, our inability to discuss personnel issues leaves the public with only news stories on which to base their opinions.

The Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, or POBAR, became effective in 1977. Let's see, I was in seventh grade in 1977. Since then, there have been several amendments made to the act but the substance remains the same. POBAR regulates personnel investigations and disciplinary procedures relating to police officers employed by state and local governmental agencies. The act is covered in California Government Code sections 3300-3312. I won't include an exhaustive review of POBAR but will cover a few items of interest.

First, there is a difference between an internal administrative investigation and a criminal investigation of police officers. Many times, the department conducts simultaneous investigations that are bifurcated between the criminal investigations team and the internal affairs investigators. While criminal investigations are in progress, we can't comment. If the department determines there is enough evidence to file a criminal charge on an officer, the case is forwarded to the District Attorney's Office for review. If charges are filed and the officer is arrested, I can talk to the media because the matter is now public record.

Internal investigations are not a matter of public record. Most do not involve criminal activity, but are focused on misconduct or violation of policies or procedures. Officers under internal investigation face discipline from counseling to termination. Officers under administrative internal investigation are afforded confidentiality by POBAR. Government Code Section 3303(e) states, "The employer shall not cause the public safety officer under interrogation to be subjected to visits by the press or news media without his or her express consent nor shall his or her home address or photograph be given to the press or news media without his or her express consent."

Now for the critics, I understand 3303(e) does not say I can't talk to the media; it merely states the officer shall not be subjected to visits by the press. My opinion, liked or not, is that once I divulge information regarding any internal investigation, the press -- and they are really good -- will find out the identity of the officer and seek comment. With social media and other informational outlets on the Internet, people are now easier than ever to find. I'm not willing to take that risk. Government Code Section 3309.5(a) states, "It shall be unlawful for any public safety department to deny or refuse to any public safety officer the rights and protections guaranteed to him or her by this chapter." Government Code Section 3309.5(e) states every violation of the act may carry with it a $25,000 fine. That is not good use of public funds.

In addition to POBAR, the department must abide by the California Public Records Act, Penal Code sections 832.5-832.8 and Evidence Code sections 1043-1047 generally. These codes outline procedures for release of public employee and confidential personnel files. To navigate all these issues while balancing the public's right to know versus police officers' protections afforded by these codes requires enormous responsibility and discretion.

Don't shoot the messenger. The department wants to be transparent and accountable to the public when issues of concern arise. The department continues to be committed to the safety and security of the city. We continue to enjoy a law enforcement-friendly community. We are not perfect and readily admit so. Don't let our inability to discuss confidential personnel issues impact your trust in the Bakersfield Police Department.

Greg Williamson is the chief of the Bakersfield Police Department. Another View presents a critical response to a previous editorial, column or news story.

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