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New Law, Joint Media Effort Reveal Once-Secret Police Misconduct Files

KQED reporter views a once-secret video of prisoner inmate describing sexual abuse | Still from "The Fight To Know"
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A Whittier police officer falsified a report so a fellow officer could receive an award.

A San Diego sheriff’s deputy fired his gun in his house and did not report it. His neighbors noticed a hole in their belongings and did. 

An Orange County sheriff’s deputy was fired following accusations he sexually assaulted a woman before booking her into jail and then later engaged in sexual behavior with her at her home.

A Pomona police officer engaged in a sexual relationship with a minor.

The revelations, written in police records obtained by SoCal Connected, were among hundreds to come to light during a massive and unprecedented joint media effort across the state to examine police officers’ disciplinary files once held in secrecy but recently made public.

Newsrooms large and small, from the Bay Area and Southern California News Groups to public radio station KCBX in San Luis Obispo to KCET’s SoCal Connected in Los Angeles formed the California Reporting Project. They demanded police records made public in 2019 with the passage of the so-called “Right to Know Act,” fought together in court against departments that resisted, and combed through thousands of pages of documents for news.

“We usually work in such a silo,” said Greta Mart, KCBX radio’s news director. “For us, it was exciting and energizing to be a part of such a large effort and to be recognized as an equal. Everybody was taking care of their own little area.”

The investigation sent more than 1,300 public records requests to 723 state, regional and local law enforcement agencies for information about police misconduct during the previous five years. By August, the group received records that included about 317 incidents of dishonesty,  226 incidents of sexual assault and 500 use-of-force cases, the project reported.

Although the disciplined officers represented a fraction of the thousands of officers serving with distinction at law enforcement agencies throughout California, the records gave community groups, attorneys, victims and the media insight into what happens when a police officer gets into trouble. For decades, laws pushed primarily by powerful police officers’ unions and their political clout, kept those records private and locked away from public view. 

Gov. Jerry Brown, who had signed police officer privacy laws during his first stint as governor in the 1970s, signed the new law reversing them in 2018 during his second tenure running the state. It went into effect Jan. 1, 2019, and reporters were ready and waiting to strike.

“We prepared our public records requests and sent them…at 12:01 on Jan. 1, 2019,” Mart said. “It was pretty slow getting things back. Some agencies were responsive right away, like the city of San Luis Obispo.”

The effort was a long time coming. In 1974, police unions battled back when the state Supreme Court – in the Pitchess v. Superior Court decision -- gave  criminal defendants the right to discover the contents of police officers’ personnel files. Organized law enforcement groups, including the Peace Officers Research Association of California, angry about the decision, pushed for a law to reverse it. SB 1436, which passed quickly through the legislature, in effect, closed their personnel files, eliminating any public scrutiny of discipline.

Despite Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s warning that the law would have negative repercussions for years in relations between police officers and citizens, especially with black and brown communities, Brown signed it into law.

The law quickly made California “one of the most secretive states in the whole country when it comes to public access to internal investigations of police officers,” KQED criminal justice reporter Alex Emslie told SoCal Connected.

Nothing much changed for 40 years.

“I and I think many others became very used to that, just being like, ‘You know, you just get used to things,’’ Emslie said. “And it's like ‘we just don't get to know that.”

More SoCal Connected investigations into police accountability

As the years passed, the effort to delve into police personnel files became even more difficult. In 2006, the California Supreme Court issued another ruling that kept police misconduct records confidential, preventing the public from learning if officers accused of various offenses faced discipline.

The pendulum, however, swung in the 2010s, when the public, weary of officer-involved police shootings involving minorities and secrecy into the investigations, began demanding transparency. High-profile shootings, including the death of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man in Sacramento in 2018, resulted in calls for police to wear body cameras and for openness on investigations and officers’ histories.

While the American Civil Liberties Union supported legislation for transparency, police unions continued to fight to keep their files closed. Officers’ unions, including PORAC, yield tremendous power, donating millions of dollars to politicians, political organizations, and in support and against ballot propositions, records show.

Largely prompted by Clark’s death, State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, proposed the Right to Know Act, or SB 1421. The measure proposed to make records related to officers involved in sexual assault, dishonesty and use-of-force cases open for public scrutiny. Despite opposition from police organizations, the bill passed through the legislature. Brown, in his second stint as governor, signed it into law in September 2018.

Even with the new law, police agencies fought to keep records from becoming public. Days before the law took effect, many police agencies, including Inglewood, Santa Ana, Freemont and Long Beach, were accused of shredding records. The agencies denied any wrongdoing, saying the destruction was routine. Many agencies, including the Los Angeles Times, went to court to keep department’s from preventing the release of files.

The daunting task to request and then review thousands of records fell on reporters in an industry beset with staff reductions and budget cutbacks. Led by KQED, some 40 news organizations that normally competed against one another for scoops, decided no one could take on the job alone, and there was no need for news outlets to duplicate efforts. The coalition also provided each news agency clout, including KCBX’s two-person newsroom, to let police agencies know they meant business and could not be ignored.

Mart and reporter Tyler Pratt filed requests for documents at police agencies throughout California’s central coast from Salinas to Santa Barbara County.

In Southern California, reporters at the Orange County Register and its sister publications that comprise the Southern California News Group, filed records requests at 168 law enforcement agencies. The requests asked for documents that SB 1421 made public.

“It was sort of leaping into the unknown,” reporter Ian Wheeler said. “We needed to see these things because we didn’t know what these records contained.”

SoCal Connected filed requests for documents from dozens of departments.

Throughout the state, many police departments, along with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, fought journalists’ requests in court or simply delayed responding. Some attempted to charge thousands, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, for copies.

In many cases, departments complied, but took months to supply the records. Eventually, however, many previously secret records were released and reporters throughout the state went through them, producing more than 125 articles. Stories included information about dishonest police officers, officers accused of sexual misconduct and how sometimes police do not investigate officer-involved shootings.

The research, explained in a November article published in newspapers throughout the state, written by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, found that more than 80 law enforcement officers currently working in California were convicted criminals. The offenses included animal cruelty, manslaughter, drunken driving, cheating on timecards, abusing family members, and reckless driving that resulted in fatalities.

Wheeler said many of the reports released to SCNG included information previously unknown, such as details of officers fired for dishonesty. Many files did not warrant stories but reading them was necessary to determine what did.

In one case, Register reporters learned about the 2009 officer-involved shooting of Caesar Ray Cruz in Anaheim that resulted in protests three years later.

“He was shot by officers and the public knew so little about it at the time because the records were kept internally,” Wheeler said. “But it led to riots in Anaheim in 2012. So, with this request, we were able to see records showing exactly what police did that day.”

Still, reporters did not get everything they requested. Mart discovered that records pertaining to former Paso Robles Officer Chris McGuire, who was accused in 2018 of sexually assaulting three women, were not made public. It turned out that because McGuire resigned from the force, his department withheld releasing its incomplete internal investigation, and legally could.

The reporting effort by KCBX and its partners, including the San Luis Obispo Tribune, is apparently changing that. Republican Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who represents the San Luis Obispo area, proposed legislation to close a loophole in SB 1421 that enabled police agencies to keep records hidden if an officer accused of sexual assault resigned before an investigation was completed. The bill, which has passed the state Assembly, would open those unfinished reports.

Police reports, meanwhile, continue to trickle into newsrooms. Wheeler said SCNG has requested the 2019 files, while still waiting for what already has been sought.

At some point, reporters believe, police agencies will understand the release of personnel files is part of their job.

“I think they are going to become routine for these organizations in the state,” he said.

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