California news agencies join forces to obtain previously secret records from hundreds of police agencies

by in News

One Los Angeles police officer had sex with a drug addict he met on foot patrol. A San Diego County sheriff’s deputy was linked to a Mexican drug cartel. That same deputy sold erectile dysfunction pills illegally to a colleague in a jail parking lot. A Brea police sergeant hawked official shoulder patches he took from the department for $95 apiece.

Such misconduct, once secret under four decades of police confidentiality statutes, now must disclosed under a new transparency law targeting police personnel records. Since late last year, police unions have been fighting fiercely in California’s courthouses to keep the internal misconduct files of their members under wraps, with little success.

But news organizations throughout the state are fighting back, forming an unprecedented collaboration to harvest and share records from every law enforcement agency in California. Putting aside competition, 32 online, radio and print agencies are working together to ensure the public gets all the information possible — and as fast as possible.

Under the new law, the collaboration has made 1,137 public records requests from 675 agencies employing police officers.

“We’re proud to partner with news organizations from throughout California on this very important public-service journalism project,” said Frank Pine, executive editor of the Southern California News Group and Bay Area News Group. “If democracy is to flourish, government agencies must be accountable to the people, and that can’t happen if the people are denied access to public records. This is especially important when it comes to law enforcement agencies, to which we entrust our safety and protection.

“The public has a right to review circumstances or incidents in which complaints or claims of serious misconduct by officers are substantiated or when officers shoot at, seriously injure or kill a member of the public,” Pine said.

Other collaborators are the Los Angeles Times, Southern California Public Radio and Voice of Orange County.

The new law — SB 1421 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley — took effect Jan. 1, opening all previously hidden internal files involving shootings and the use of deadly force as well as sustained incidents of sexual misconduct and dishonesty.

Theresa Smith has been fighting for that information for nearly a decade, since her 35-year-old son, Caesar Cruz, was shot dead by five Anaheim police officers on Dec. 11, 2009. Police said they saw him reaching for his waistband, as if he were grabbing a gun. But Cruz was unarmed. Officers were operating on a tip that he was carrying a gun and selling meth.

Smith says she knows there often is more to police shootings than the official version.

“There are a lot of untruths being told. (SB) 1421 is so the public can know things,” Smith said, explaining that for the longest time, officers have been able to release the backgrounds of those arrested for crimes without having to disclose their own.

“First they kill them, and then they kill their character,” said Smith, who has become a civil rights advocate. She and her family settled their wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Anaheim for $175,000, but she still believes she hasn’t been told everything.

Perhaps the once-secret files and videos on police shootings will be more forthcoming than the public accounts that always seem to have the same ending.

“It’s the same story, the same story, ‘(officers) feared for their lives,’ ‘he reached for his waistband,’ ” Smith said. “This is the strife I have to see as a mother.”

She added, “If you don’t have anything to hide, why are you fighting so hard?”

Tom Dominguez, president of the union representing Orange County sheriff’s deputies, said the previously secret information can be misused.

“The potential for abuse under this bill will be extraordinary,” Dominguez said. “Not only would the public be given unfettered access to a peace officer’s private information, but they would also be free to provide that information to the media or disseminate it in any way they see fit.”

Many times, he said, the media or criminal defendants set out to “impugn the good character and reputation of individual peace officers.”

Dominguez added that officer-involved shootings undergo much public scrutiny from other government agencies, so no further transparency is needed. Also, there is no evidence that the previously confidential internal affairs process wasn’t working.

Efforts by Dominguez’s group, the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, to block the release of Orange County Sheriff’s Department records were rejected in court.

“In spite of this legislation and public attacks on the profession,” he said, “(deputies) will continue to do their jobs to keep our residents safe.”

Smith isn’t so trusting.

“They hide everything — if they lied on reports, if they had any sexual misconduct. And that’s important to the families” of those shot or killed by law enforcement.