A media lawyer says those stalling under SB 1421 are just wasting taxpayer money and ‘delaying the inevitable’
By THOMAS PEELE | , TONY SAAVEDRA | email@example.com and IAN WHEELER | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sex, lies and bullets flying wildly. Then there are the stolen drugs, illegal chokeholds, planted evidence, falsified reports and a police officer who lied to move up the adoption list for a puppy.
Those are among the misadventures uncovered during the first six months of disclosures under California’s new police transparency law, Senate Bill 1421, which took effect Jan. 1. The statute requires police to release long-secret records about officer shootings, use of force, sexual misconduct and dishonesty.
Yet those disturbing examples of police misconduct have come from a only a smattering of law enforcement agencies around the state.
Some large agencies, such as the Orange County, Riverside County and San Bernardino County sheriffs’ departments, San Jose Police Department, the California Highway Patrol and the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, have yet to turn over a single document. Others have released only paltry records.
Orange County Sheriff’s Department officials are saying all the right things: how they are dedicated to transparency, how several employees are combing through records, making redactions, and how they are trying to get the files to the public as quickly as possible.
But after six months, they have not released a shred of paper under SB 1421. They finally responded after being told that the Southern California News Group and other news organizations planned to identify them as one of the slow walkers. Then they announced they will begin releasing files this week.
No explanation for delay
“I’m not going to comment on why it’s taking us longer than anyone else,” department spokesperson Carrie Braun said.
The CHP’s latest estimate for releasing records is August. As for the corrections department, it has yet to provide even a list of records responsive to the law, although a spokesperson promised a “comprehensive status update” soon.
Collaborating newsrooms this year have asked for records — documents, photos, video and audio files — of nearly 700 law enforcement agencies across the state, including more than 300 police departments and all 58 county sheriffs.
More than 1,200 records requests had been made through June — sometimes multiple attempts per law enforcement agency. Police, sheriffs and other departments so far have turned over records for about one-third of requests. For another quarter of them, agencies said they didn’t have any cases that met the criteria.
A handful of agencies have not responded to reporters’ requests, which fall under the California Public Records Act, a law that requires government offices to acknowledge requests for public records within 10 days.
‘Trying to thwart the law’
“They’re trying to thwart the law,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who authored SB 1421. “We need to have (legislative) hearings to … shame these agencies for refusing to comply with the law.”
Skinner said she also is open to amending the bill to include ways to require the quicker release of documents.
State agencies not yet releasing records is “absolutely the wrong model (and) the wrong example to set for the rest of the local government agencies,” she said in an interview.
A lawyer instrumental in getting the law passed said he is “not aware of any requester who has gotten everything they have asked for.”
“The Legislature has spoken,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California News Publishers Association. But even though only limited records are required to be released, “agencies are acting as if we’re going after their first-born child.”
Ewert said last week it “really shocks me” that San Jose, the state’s third largest city, had not released any SB 1421 documents in six months. San Jose police were involved in 33 shootings from 2014 to 2018, the years requested; 15 of them were fatal.
Like many other agencies, San Jose sided with state Attorney General Xavier Becerra that the courts should decide whether the new law applied to cases before Jan. 1, an argument several police unions made in lawsuits attempting to derail SB 1421.
Courts siding with media
But lower courts across the state, beginning in February, ruled that the law is retroactive. Becerra eventually gave up the argument and released a few disciplinary records involving Department of Justice agents, including one file showing an agent assigned to a Santa Clara drug task force was fired in 2015 for dishonesty, including stealing Moscow mule goblets from a local bar.
The issue of whether the law is retroactive appeared closed until a judge in Ventura County issued a surprise ruling earlier this month, saying the law does not apply to records created before Jan. 1. The ruling, criticized by open-government experts, affects only Ventura County. However, it is unclear if the ruling will have a broader impact.
“I mean, the cat’s out of the bag,” said Michael Rains, one of the state’s top police-union lawyers, referring to the documents agencies already have released.
Rains, who led arguments that the law doesn’t apply to old records, said the judges who ruled otherwise were “essentially legislating from the bench rather than calling it based on an objective view of the law.”
Concerns over privacy
But, he said, with the records that are out, dire predictions about officers’ privacy being violated and careers damaged haven’t happened.
“I don’t think the sky is falling,” Rains said in an interview Wednesday. “If anything, members of the public probably got some reading enjoyment from some of the things police officers do or have done, and say, ‘Wow, why would they do that?’ ”
What some records show
Those things include the bizarre, like a state agent and part-time sheriff’s deputy who for years stole tens of thousands of bullets from both agencies and wasn’t charged with a crime. And the Santa Monica officer fired for lying to get a puppy.
A police pursuit ends in a crash in Miraloma in September 2013. During the pursuit, Ontario Police Officer Neil Beresford shot wildly from his motorcycle, striking the suspect’s and other vehicles. An investigation followed and Beresford eventually was suspended for 30 hours. (Courtesy of Riverside County district attorney via Ontario Police Department.)
In Ontario, Officer Neil Beresford was disciplined for shooting wildly from his motorcycle during a 90 mph pursuit in 2013. One bullet hit the suspect’s car, three rounds hit other vehicles. One bullet struck the front bumper of a passing car. Another hit a Chevrolet parked at a nearby Circle K convenience store, with a woman seated inside.
Ontario officials initially recommended suspending Beresford for 200 hours without pay. But they later watered down the punishment to 30 hours.
Another ploy: A former Pomona detective, Jennifer Turpin, resigned under pressure in 2015 after falsifying a report to make it appear a murder suspect understood and waived his Miranda rights when he did not. She was caught when a recording of the interview didn’t match her report.
Some agencies destroyed files
Other agencies took great pains to keep their dirty laundry in house.
The Yuba County Sheriff’s Department destroyed years of records, including internal affairs investigations of dishonesty by officers and sexual misconduct, on Jan. 16, two weeks after the new law went into effect, despite receiving multiple requests for the records.
In Southern California, the cities of Downey, Long Beach and Inglewood purged years of old records rather than turn them over. The state requires that records be kept for at least five years.
To Ewert, the CNPA lawyer, agencies are “wasting taxpayer funds” and resources by engaging in protracted arguments with requesters and dragging things out rather than simply following the law and providing the records.
“They’re just delaying the inevitable,” he said.
This story was produced as part of the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of more than 40 newsrooms across the state to obtain and report on police misconduct and serious use-of-force records unsealed in 2019.
KQED radio news reporter Sukey Lewis contributed to this report.