The Sacramento Bee joins statewide media collaborative to access police conduct records

The Sacramento Bee has joined more than 30 news organizations throughout California to report on law enforcement records that have become public under California’s new police transparency law.

The law, Senate Bill 1421, makes public records from officer-involved shootings and investigations that have sustained findings of sexual assault and dishonesty while officers were on duty. So far, 30 news organizations have filed 675 requests in all 58 counties in California.

“The newsrooms have agreed to set aside competition and work collaboratively given the public service this reporting will provide,” the collaborative said in a press release.

The collaborative includes news organizations such as KQED, the Bay Area News Group, the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, CALmatters, UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program, KPCC, and Capital Public Radio.

The Bee has filed more than a dozen requests for records to local law enforcement agencies, including a request to the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department seeking records of shootings and other critical incidents dating back to Jan. 1, 2014. The Los Angeles Times filed a similar request. But Sheriff Scott Jones’ department quickly rejected both requests, saying it had such records but would not release them until it had “clear legal authority to release such records.”

The Bee and The Times jointly sued the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department in January, charging that the department is refusing to follow the statute that requires the release of records on deputies who fired their weapons or engaged in misconduct on duty.

The lawsuit, filed by prominent San Francisco-based First Amendment attorney Karl Olson, said the records sought by both newspapers “are explicitly made disclosable by Senate Bill 1421” and that the sheriff is withholding the records under the argument that only records generated after the law took effect Jan. 1 can be released.

The sheriff’s department, in letters to both newspapers, said “peace officer personnel records are protected by law” and that the new law “was not expressly made retroactive,” meaning Jones would release records only for events that occurred after the law took effect.

The sheriff’s argument “is mistaken,” the lawsuit says, noting that even opponents of the new law conceded during legislative debate that its requirements are retroactive.

Police officer unions in at least nine counties have challenged the law, suing to keep records secret and arguing the legislation does not apply retroactively.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra last month declined to provide records of misconduct prior to 2019, and cited ongoing court challenges brought by law enforcement unions.

Following Becerra’s announcement, Placer County changed course and rather than providing officer misconduct records in a timely manner, said it would wait until the issue of retroactivity was settled in court.

Some cities destroyed records in the last months of 2018, rather than release them.

The city of Morgan Hill in Santa Clara County burned eight banker’s boxes of records on Dec. 27, according to City Attorney Donald Larkin. The city also destroyed background reports for people applying to be police officers and internal investigation reports dating back to 1990, Larkin wrote in an emailed response.

The city of Fremont shredded documentation related to citizen complaints and administrative investigations going back to 2010. And the city of Inglewood in Southern California destroyed more than 100 shooting records in the final weeks of 2018, according to The Los Angeles Times.

“For a state agency to burn records instead of turning them over as mandated by current law is inexcusable,” said Lauren Gustus, editor for McClatchy’s West Region and the Sacramento Bee. “All Californians have the right to this information. By pooling resources, we can expedite the public’s right to access misconduct and deadly use-of-force materials.”

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