Sacramento sheriff will release records on deputy-involved shootings and misconduct

Jordan Cunningham working to hold police accountable for sexual misconduct

California Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham has proposed a bill that, along with an amendment to the SB 1421 police transparency law, would go a long way to better holding rogue law enforcement officers accountable for sexual misconduct.
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California Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham has proposed a bill that, along with an amendment to the SB 1421 police transparency law, would go a long way to better holding rogue law enforcement officers accountable for sexual misconduct.

Citing a recent court decision upholding a new state law on transparency of law enforcement records, Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones said he will release records dating back five years that are being sought by The Sacramento Bee and other media outlets.

Jones, in an emailed statement to The Bee on Tuesday, said his department’s denial of the request for records involving deputies firing their weapons or being accused of misconduct came because there were questions about whether Senate Bill 1421 could be applied retroactively. The law took effect Jan. 1.

Now, with a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal in a case involving the Walnut Creek Police Officers’ Association, Jones said it is clear he can release the records being sought.

“Since SB 1421 was first passed, there have been questions about its retroactivity,” Jones wrote. “Early court decisions were split on that issue. I have never had an issue with releasing the described records, but I decided that we would withhold releasing the records under the new law until it was legally decided by a court of competent jurisdiction.

“I made that decision for two reasons: First, the contemplated records are protected by law, and give rise to financial and legal penalties if released without authorization. Second, releasing the records erroneously is irreversible, whereas withholding the records until a legal determination is made is easily reversible.”

Jones, who is also an attorney, said that despite his initial decision to withhold the records, he already had ordered sheriff’s officials to begin identifying and redacting some records “in anticipation of the law being determined to be retroactive.”

“The recent Court of Appeal decision from the First Appellate District for the first time provides clear guidance on the question of retroactivity and supersedes the varied Superior Court decisions on the matter,” he wrote. “Therefore, it is my intention to release the applicable records in our possession after they are properly identified and redacted.

“I will be speaking to County Counsel and our litigation attorneys later this week on how best to proceed down this course. Because we are such a large agency, the entirety of the task will take some time, but we are committed to ensuring a thorough job in as timely a manner as we can. I will be reassigning staff from other divisions to help with expediency.”

The Bee and the Los Angeles Times jointly sued Jones in Sacramento Superior Court in January, seeking release of records dating back to Jan. 1, 2014, under the new law, and attorney Karl Olson, who filed the suit, said Tuesday he was gratified that the sheriff was agreeing to release the records being sought.

“I’m pleased that the sheriff has recognized the binding nature of the Court of Appeal’s decision in the Walnut Creek case, and we hope that the records will be released as soon as possible to fulfill the legislative mandate that the important records covered by SB 1421 be made public so that the public can see for itself how their law enforcement officers have performed,” Olson said.

In the Walnut Creek case, the court said the police union’s argument that the law could not be applied retroactively was “without merit” and that although the law only took effect in 2019, a request for records under it can be applied to older documents in the possession of law enforcement agencies.

“The court has ruled these records belong to the public and we are eager to work with the sheriff’s department to expedite their delivery,” said Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Lauren Gustus.

Law enforcement agencies statewide have been wrestling with public records requests and lawsuits over the new law, which makes public records from officer-involved shootings and investigations that have sustained findings of sexual assault and dishonesty while officers were on duty.

About 20 lawsuits have been filed, and 30 news organizations have filed 675 requests in all 58 counties in California.

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Sam Stanton has worked for The Bee since 1991 and has covered a variety of issues, including politics, criminal justice and breaking news.