In one of my favorite “Far Side” comic strips, the first panel offers what people typically say to dogs: “OK Ginger I’ve had it. You stay out of the garbage! Understand Ginger?” The next panel translates what dogs actually hear: “Blah blah Ginger, blah blah blah Ginger.”

I think of that comic sometimes when I’m stuck on the floor of the state Assembly or Senate and hear a Republican legislator giving a speech about “freedom.” All I hear is, “Blah blah Constitution, blah, blah limited-government.” My comprehension skills are better than the average mutt’s, but I’m trained to know blather when I hear it.

On two of the clearest liberty issues to come before the Legislature in recent years, most Republicans have sided with big-government secrecy. Those issues are back this year in the form of Senate Bill 1286, which calls for transparency by California’s law enforcement agencies, and SB443, which reins in some of the government’s most corrupt property-taking tactics.

Because of a 2006 state Supreme Court decision, Californians have had virtually no access to information about police officers who may have engaged in pattern of misbehaviors or who have been involved in multiple shootings. In Copley Press v. Superior Court, the San Diego Union-Tribune sought access to the disciplinary hearing of a San Diego deputy sheriff who appealed his termination.

The far-reaching ruling blocked the public’s access to information that previously was available and that remains widely accessible in most other states. A 2010 report by the Investigative Fund found that 25 of 27 Fresno police officers who were involved in repeated shootings remained on the force. The Copley decision meant the public had no right to learn who they were. That can allow bad officers to fester within a department.

In Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, stood up for accountability, while Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Riverside County, did not. “This is not an anti-law-enforcement bill,” Leno said. “This bill is not opening all personnel files for public consumption. It’s an attempt to rebuild community and police trust through greater public access to sustained charges of egregious law-enforcement conduct.”

Perhaps the nation wouldn’t be facing so much turmoil over police use-of-force issues if there were fewer union prerogatives and more accountability. The bill recently was amended to deal solely with public records (and not personnel hearings), but even that won’t mollify the “secrecy lobby.”

“People need to be proven guilty before we disclose their identity and potentially enrage the public,” Sen. Stone said.

However, members of myriad professions have their disciplinary proceedings open to the public. We mere citizens could have allegations publicly raised against us (in a court proceeding, for instance) before any finding of guilt.

On the encouraging side, Sen. John Moorlach is a co-sponsor of SB 1286. The Costa Mesa Republican also supports reform of the asset-forfeiture process by which police agencies grab the property of citizens who have never been convicted, or even accused, of a crime. The process was designed to battle drug kingpins but has morphed into something despicable.

“The tactic has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits,” two U.S. Justice Department officials, who developed the program in the 1980s, wrote in a 2014 Washington Post column. New Mexico’s governor last year limited the practice after a city attorney was taped bragging: “We could be czars. We could own the city. We could be in the real estate business.”

California’s current law has some fairly tough restrictions on these takings, so local agencies partner with the feds and operate under more lenient federal laws. Then they split the loot. SB443 would shut down that loophole. Last year, the bill had widespread support, but then police agencies – fearing a loss of revenue – began arm-twisting at the Capitol.

Only a handful of Republicans held firm in the final vote, with Orange County putting in the best showing. Assemblymen Bill Brough, R-Dana Point, and Matt Harper, R-Huntington Beach, were two of only four Republicans in the Assembly who voted “yes” on a bill that did little more than uphold the Fifth Amendment’s requirement for due process.

Politicians from the party of Reagan and Lincoln should instinctively know the dangers of giving government officials unaccountable power. That so few of them do is a reminder that, when many of them talk about liberty, all the rest of us should hear is “blah, blah, blah.”

Featured Publications