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'Delaying the Inevitable': Many Police Agencies Withhold Records in New Era of Transparency

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The first six months of California's new police transparency law have led to shocking revelations of police misconduct, but many records still haven't been released.  (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

Sexual assault in jail. Domestic violence complaints against an officer ignored. Knocked-out teeth followed by a cover-up.

Throw in tens of thousands of stolen bullets, an illegal chokehold, falsified police reports and cavorting with sex workers, and you've got an emerging picture of what California's new police transparency law has revealed in its first six months.

Those cases involving California peace officers are some of the incidents recently made public due to a landmark transparency law that undid decades of secrecy surrounding police internal affairs files.

But six months after Senate Bill 1421 went into effect, some of the state’s largest law enforcement agencies haven’t provided a single record.

Some law enforcement organizations are charging high fees for records, destroying documents and even ignoring court orders to produce the files.

'Dragging Their Feet'

The law, authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, covers records of shootings by officers, severe uses of force and confirmed cases of sexual assault and dishonesty by officers. Skinner said the revelations that have come out so far are proof that the law is working to shed sunlight on police misconduct.

But she said it’s troubling that major state agencies, such as the California Highway Patrol, which employs more than 7,300 officers, haven’t yet produced a single record.

“If the state agencies themselves are acting like they're above the law, that's absolutely the wrong model and the wrong example to set for the rest of the local government agencies up and down the state,” Skinner said.

Skinner said she plans to call for oversight hearings to push for full disclosure.

“We'll have to start being more proactive about really poking them if they're dragging their feet,” she said.

Officials with many law enforcement agencies insist they’ve done nothing wrong, saying they are trying to release records as best they can. They also dispute that there is anything improper about the records that have been destroyed.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva acknowledged earlier this year that public records requests were "stacking up." He has said he’s asked the county Board of Supervisors for funding to hire more people to handle requests.

Legal Battle For Police Files

"People are asking for the world," he said. His office did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

After a San Francisco judge ordered the state Department of Justice to release SB 1421-related records in May, the agency issued two dated internal investigations into misconduct by state agents. The department has since failed to provide additional records.

The California Attorney General’s Office is expected to soon appeal the judge’s ruling, arguing that it shouldn’t have to provide the files it has on local agencies and otherwise seeking to narrow the records it is required to release.

KQED joined that case in March and is arguing for broad access to the records the state Department of Justice holds from law enforcement agencies across California.

“This project, this reporting, and the revelations we’ve seen in these documents should give victims — and all Californians — a belief in the power of journalism’s sunlight,” said Ethan Lindsey, executive editor of KQED News, adding that some state agencies have yet to provide a single record. “Hopefully this work will help convince them that this data is of legitimate public interest.”

Some of the largest local law enforcement agencies in California have also been slow to respond.

At a recent San Francisco Police Commission meeting, deputy public defenders addressed the difficulty they’ve been having getting records on officer dishonesty from the Bay Area’s largest police department.

“All it takes to support charges and hold individuals in jail is testimony by police officers,” said law student Will Kirkland, who is interning for the public defender. “Of course many officers in San Francisco are honest and have records of integrity. But for the minority of officers who don't, their word is still being relied upon to keep people locked up. And that's why we are simply requesting compliance with the law.”

SFPD has released only partial documentation from four shootings by officers and no disciplinary records. The department has said promptly releasing the files is too taxing, and it has invoked a dozen extensions. A department spokesman said SFPD is hiring 11 people to respond to requests.

Reporting with Impact

The failure to disclose public police records also appears to be the trend among law enforcement agencies in Southern California. Both the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Long Beach Police Department have yet to release a single file to news organizations that have requested records under SB 1421, including KPCC, the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register and KQED.

The Los Angeles County Probation Department, which supervises youths held in detention, has declined to release records, claiming disclosure of records about cases involving minors is prohibited by law. The department also supervises adults, however, and records involving juveniles could be redacted to remove names and then released in compliance with the law.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has refused to search for records, instead demanding that reporters identify specific cases they are seeking. It released records pertaining to one deputy to the Los Angeles Times, and a handful of separate files to KPCC, but nothing to the Orange County Register.

The files from the Sheriff’s Department included internal affairs records for Deputy Caren Mandoyan, who was fired for dishonesty and domestic violence and later reinstated by Sheriff Villanueva. The documents also showed that Mandoyan had admitted to having a tattoo linked to a secret society of deputies.

The Los Angeles Police Department has released more than a dozen files and is issuing additional documents on a rolling basis.

Public access advocates say they’re troubled by the pace of the release of records.

“They’re just delaying the inevitable,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California News Publishers Association, which lobbied in favor of the new law. He added the agencies are “wasting taxpayer funds” by stalling and dragging out the release of the records.

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Several agencies are seeking high fees for the public records.

The city of Bakersfield estimated that reviewing the audio and body worn camera footage related to a single shooting would cost about $6,621.60. Footage related to cases from the past five years, when Bakersfield Police shot 28 people, would cost an estimated $185,000.

West Sacramento estimated it would cost $25 per minute to redact its footage. To obtain footage of five officer-involved shootings would cost $25,000 in total.

The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department charged KPCC $1,655 to redact audio from shooting investigations, including that of Deputy Gonzalo Inzunza, who shot at four people in seven months and was the subject of KPCC podcast Repeat. The department has yet to provide the tapes.

Sen. Skinner said her office is monitoring the issue.

“If we see a pattern of this kind of really prohibitive costs then it is appropriate and essential for the Legislature to revisit and relook at it,” Skinner said.

The California Supreme Court is also considering a case right now that could limit the amount that agencies can charge for review and redaction.

Burned and Shredded

Some agencies destroyed records before they could be turned over to the public.

Earlier this year, the Downey Police Officers Association attempted to force the city to destroy records older than five years, arguing that doing so would be in keeping with the records retention schedule.

KPCC, the Los Angeles Times and the Long Beach Post opposed the union, and the court sided with the media organizations in May, paving the way for records to be released.

KPCC reporters learned recently that much of what was sought had already been purged before the beginning of the year, including the investigation into Officer Steven Gilley’s 2011 deadly police shooting of Michael Nida, an unarmed father of four.

Police shooting investigations can amass hundreds of pages of witness statements, forensic reports and officer interviews, as well as video and audio files. The city’s attorney promised to hand over what little was preserved — a 33-page report, which still hasn’t been provided.

Sarah Lustig, Downey’s attorney, said the city will produce records in keeping with the new law, but also may continue to purge older records based on its retention schedule.

While cities like Downey, Inglewood, Fremont and Morgan Hill destroyed records before Jan. 1, the Yuba County Sheriff destroyed years’ worth of records including internal affairs investigations of dishonesty and sexual misconduct on Jan. 16, two weeks after the new law went into effect.

Yuba County had already received requests from the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and KQED for records disclosable under SB 1421.

County Counsel Andrew Naylor said this was a routine purge completely unrelated to the law. But many of the records that were destroyed had already been kept years beyond their required retention dates and were potentially responsive to pending public records requests.

Naylor said the fact that they were destroyed just days after they became disclosable was a coincidence.

“They’d fallen behind,” he said.

David Snyder, director of the First Amendment Coalition, called Yuba County’s move “highly suspicious.” He said once the county understood that the public were seeking these records, it had a duty to preserve them.

Legal Fight

Attempts by several police unions to ask judges to block the release of records have largely failed. The unions argued the new law did not apply to records of incidents that happened before Jan. 1.

In March, more than 170 agencies were either in active litigation or refusing to produce records as they waited for direction from the courts. Now, Ventura County appears to be the only local government barred from releasing records due to active union litigation.

One of the state’s top police lawyers, who led the fight to block access to pre-2019 cases, said the fact that thousands of those records have nevertheless been released did not create a crisis.

“I don’t think the sky is falling,” Michael Rains said in an interview Wednesday. “If anything, members of the public probably got some reading enjoyment.”

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Rains said most of the law enforcement unions his firm represents had given up on blocking the release of older cases following a series of losses and rejections in several county superior courts and state appeals courts.

The state Supreme Court has declined to hear the issue multiple times. But that may not be the last word. A Ventura County judge resurrected the “retroactivity” issue in a June 19 ruling that bucked every other decision to date. As a result of the ruling, pre-2019 records remain sealed in that county.

The Ventura County Public Defender, which intervened in the case to fight for access to pre-2019 records, has not decided whether to appeal.

But for most agencies outside of Ventura County, Rains said they should provide the records or face lawsuits from news organizations and other groups. He said he was surprised that some of the largest agencies in the state have still not produced much or any information.

“Unless the agency is in complete disarray and it has no staff that would be able to ... respond to these requests, which is a problem, they should be able to get them out,” Rains said.

Sen. Skinner said she will be monitoring which agencies are releasing records and other issues with the new law as they arise.

“First and foremost, I want to take my state agencies to task,” she said. “And then we can start looking at what ways either we need to modify the legislation or what ways we need to have public hearings to basically, in a way, shame these agencies for refusing to comply with the law.”

Lisa Pickoff-White and Alex Emslie of KQED and Tony Saavedra of the Orange County Register contributed to this report.

This story was produced as part of the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of 40 newsrooms across the state to obtain and report on police misconduct and serious use-of-force records unsealed in 2019.


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