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Sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant. It's an adage we believe in, and one we hope will hold true with the publication of this week's cover story, which is the product of a years-long Journal investigation into a string of use-of-force incidents involving a single local officer.

But the story isn't solely about him. It's also about a system in need of reform and sunlight.

When California lawmakers passed the landmark transparency law Senate Bill 1421 in 2018, they did so over the objections of police unions. The bill opened large swaths of police records to the public for the first time, including internal affairs investigations involving uses of force that caused great bodily injury, and sustained findings of dishonesty, bias and sexual assault on duty. At the time, the unions argued the bill was unnecessary, would do nothing to make streets safer and would subject police to false narratives driven by the media.

But if you read this week's cover story carefully, we think you'll notice a pattern of false narratives, though not from the media. Rather, you'll see district attorney reviews of police shootings — held up as a layer of oversight for departments — that not only fail to take a critical look at the incidents from a wholistic public safety perspective, but also seem to fudge facts in an effort to support a law enforcement-friendly narrative. We think you'll also notice a pattern of agencies seeming to look the other way when one of their own peddles a narrative disconnected from the evidence at hand.

As constructed, our criminal justice system depends on officers, agencies and prosecutors to honor the public trust even when no one is looking. Sadly, this week's cover story raises serious questions about their ability and/or willingness to do that. An answer, we believe, is to get more people looking, and we'll continue to push for legislative changes that bring more of police work — and police disciplinary procedures — into public view.

S.B. 1421 and subsequent laws are a good start. They have highlighted cases in which agencies have taken swift action to address misconduct within their ranks and detailed instances when they have fallen woefully short. They've made the public aware of problem officers and helped weed them out of the profession. And they've given the public greater insight into the complexities of police interactions with violent suspects, what de-escalation looks like and why it can sometimes be so hard to achieve.

We don't expect police officers — or anyone else — to be perfect. But we do expect honesty, decency and accountability.

As police officers will tell you, a law often only carries weight if there's someone around to enforce it. In our case, when the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office and the California Highway Patrol denied our public records act requests seeking video footage and internal affairs documents related to a police dog bite case, it was attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan who came to our aid and took the legal steps to press the agencies to follow the law. We're grateful for his support and good work in the name of public access and transparency.

Where this all goes from here is largely up to you.

For example, thanks to S.B. 1421 and Boylan, we now know that a sheriff's deputy ordered his police dog to bite an unarmed suspect while they were being held on the ground by five other officers. And we know that most of the sheriff's office's command staff watched video of the incident and decided it was within policy, that the deputy should not face discipline.

Is this how you want your police agencies to operate? Is this what oversight and accountability look like? Is this glimpse of sunlight enough to disinfect what needs disinfecting?

Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or

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Thadeus Greenson

Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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