California voters veer hard to the right on law-and-order issues, as politicians from both major parties have learned, defying stereotypes of a state of loony leftists. In recent months, attitudes have shown signs of changing.

After a video went viral of a campus police officer pepper-spraying a line of peaceful protesters at the University of California at Davis in November, the public reaction was far from sympathetic to the police. Although the Occupy protesters did their best to provoke the police and other citizens in Tuesday’s May Day demonstrations in San Francisco and Oakland, longer-term trends deserve critical attention, too.

The UC Davis incident came after some highly publicized cases of police shootings and abuse, and amid general grumbling over revelations of eye-popping pay and benefit packages for California’s public-safety workers.

Last month, a panel led by a former state Supreme Court associate justice, Cruz Reynoso, released a report highly critical of how the police handled the Davis pepper-spray incident, prompting the campus police chief to resign.

“The task force blamed the university administration for poor leadership and communication, and a ‘dysfunctional’ police force for disobeying orders and needlessly escalating force,” the Sacramento Bee said in summarizing the report.

Robust Police Rights

In a sensible world, wrote Conor Friedersdorf in the Atlantic, the police officer who pepper-sprayed the students, Lieutenant John Pike, would have been placed on administrative leave and then fired a few weeks later after the university found he had disobeyed orders.

“But that isn’t how things are going to work in this case,” Friedersdorf wrote, “for in California, a misbehaving police officer like Lt. Pike has due process rights so robust that it’s extraordinarily difficult to discipline or fire one.” The officer and his boss refused to speak to investigators.

The culprit: a peace officers’ bill of rights, which tilts the playing field so strongly in the direction of an accused officer that it’s virtually impossible to fire one. This can apply even to campus police, who are sworn officers entitled to these special protections. (Virtually every public security guard these days is considered a duly sworn officer of the state, and their unions are vocal about asserting those powers. Even milk inspectors in California qualify for enhanced public safety pensions.)

The Reynoso report pointed to the California law and called for reforms to protect the public’s trust in law enforcement. Not only does the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act shield police accused of wrongdoing, it cloaks all matters related to police discipline in secrecy, just as a 2006 state Supreme Court decision does. While Ronald Reagan is thought of as the ultimate law-and-order politician -- he was first elected governor of California, in 1966, on an anti-student-protest platform -- it was Jerry Brown, Reagan’s successor, who signed the rights law. The riots in South Central Los Angeles 20 years ago this week reinvigorated the law-and-order fervor.

Brown, in his first two terms as governor, also granted public employees collective-bargaining rights. His return as governor in 2011 and the growing pension-reform debate have put these previously forgotten 1970s-era laws back in the spotlight.

After speaking to a conservative group in Southern California about police-abuse issues, I was approached by a local official who said he thought the subject was gaining traction because of public concern about the pension crisis.

Criticism of Pensions

That no doubt is true. News articles have reported on 50-year-old cops receiving $150,000-a-year pension deals, and on departments where the majority of officers retired with dubious disabilities.

Those and other accounts of costly perks and abuses have led voters -- even in conservative bastions such as Orange County -- to sometimes think of public-safety officials as scammers rather than heroes. In liberal locales, some Democrats chafe at their political allegiance to police and fire unions as cities cut back social services to pay for excessive compensation packages.

In a case that caused outrage in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Alameda Fire Department let a man drown in 60 degrees Fahrenheit (15 degrees Celsius) water in May 2011. The first responders could not save him, officials explained, because they lacked cold-water rescue training. The voters see that many rules governing public-safety unions aren’t much different from the nonsensical rules governing other union jobs.

I’ve sensed a dramatic shift since moving to California in 1998, in the thick of a gubernatorial election pitting Gray Davis against Republican Dan Lungren, who as California attorney general advocated “three strikes” and other anti-crime laws. Republicans had few issues that resonated with voters in statewide races, so they focused on law and order. Davis, recognizing the Democrats’ vulnerability, vowed never to be outflanked by the right on crime.

As the New York Times reported: “He would give judges discretion to sentence 14-year-olds to death; he would let them consider supporting non-unanimous jury verdicts. Indeed, Mr. Davis said in a televised debate, on issues of law and order, he considered Singapore -- a country that executes drug offenders - - ’a good starting point.’”

During a state Senate hearing in 2007 on a bill that would have overturned provisions of the state Supreme Court decision keeping police disciplinary matters confidential (Copley Press Inc. v. Superior Court of San Diego County), the law-enforcement unions showed up in force, and legislators from both parties killed the bill. Democrats even removed the civil-libertarian committee chairman who favored the changes.

Union Protections

These days, it’s a bit different. One former prosecutor complained that potential jurors sound more like civil libertarians. And it’s hard to imagine a prominent politician calling for the execution of drug offenders in 2012. An initiative that would do away with the death penalty entirely has even qualified for November’s ballot.

In many cases of officer-involved shootings, the public rarely learns the details of what transpired beyond the official versions released by police agencies because of the peace officers’ bill of rights and the Copley ruling. Even in egregious cases of wrongdoing -- for example, that of an Anaheim officer accused of sexually abusing illegal immigrants -- union protections can drag out the proceedings.

Many citizens will shrug at the UC Davis report because of an understandable dislike for the Occupy protesters, who didn’t help their image on Tuesday. But questionable officer-involved shootings and accusations of serious abuse by police and deputies deserve far more public scrutiny than they are getting. We don’t want to return to the bad old days, but in California, at least, it’s time to start pushing the pendulum back in the other direction.

(Steven Greenhut is vice president of journalism at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He is based in Sacramento, California. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Steven Greenhut in Sacramento, California, at steven.greenhut@franklincenterhq.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net.