How much taxpayer money will Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones’ office burn through to avoid following the law?
His department has spent nine months in court fighting public records requests The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times filed in January under Senate Bill 1421. The new law requires police departments to release the records of officers who engage in serious misconduct or criminal activity, including incidents where officers have killed or seriously injured suspects.
The sheriff’s office finally agreed to release records, but is taking its time to do so. This foot-dragging is getting expensive for Sacramento County residents whose taxes fund the department.
Last week, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Steven M. Gevercer ordered the sheriff’s office cover $103,775 in legal fees incurred by the media organizations during the lawsuit against the department. Gevercer said the fees were Jones’ responsibility because he had ignored deadlines to produce requested documents.
The six-figure sum doesn’t account for the county’s own legal costs defending the department’s efforts to drag out the release of documents. It also doesn’t cover the cost of the time department staff are spending on releasing information in what could be the least efficient way possible.
The California Public Records Act requires state and local agencies provide their records upon request to members of the public. Personnel records are typically exempted, but SB 1421 expanded the law to cover personnel records of law enforcement officers when they have engaged in serious misconduct.
After its passage, The Bee and the Times requested records from within the last five years, or back as far as 2014, that pertain to situations where officers were disciplined. As of Sept. 26, Jones’ office had produced documents from only four cases that fit that time window.
The pages the department has provided are checkered with redactions. And instead of focusing on properly fulfilling the actual requests, the department has needlessly provided pages of information pertaining to at least a dozen cases going back as far as 2005.
Bee reporter Sam Stanton submitted a declaration to the court describing the type of information the department is omitting from case files. For example, documents from when the sheriff’s office disciplined Deputy Gary Gaspar for mistakenly firing at another deputy do not include the name of the officer he fired upon, the names of officers who investigated the incident or Gaspar’s entire work history – including complaints against him.
In the transcription of a sergeant’s interview with Gaspar following the incident, Gaspar’s responses to several questions about whether he encountered problems during his training are redacted. The transcription leaves in his answers to more basic and less relevant questions, such as the hours of his shift and what dates he underwent certain training.
That case is just one example of the lengths to which the sheriff’s department has gone to provide documents in the least efficient and least useful manner possible. No wonder the 10 department staff Jones assigned to producing documents, including nine full time, are taking so long.
The longer this stays in court, and the more time the sheriff’s staff spends hiding names and details that the public has a right to know, the higher the costs.
It’s time for Sheriff Jones to stop wasting taxpayer money and start following the law.