The Fight To Get Public Records From LA County's Sheriff

(Maya Sugarman/KPCC/Image filter by Prisma)

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva scored his upset victory last year on the promise he'd bring greater transparency to the historically troubled agency, which holds the tremendous power to accuse and arrest and is responsible for the wellbeing of those in its jail system.

But when KPCC/LAist sought records about those activities, a pattern emerged: routine delays or fees for records often provided more quickly and cheaply by other agencies.

KPCC/LAist sought records on people booked into county jail, the largest jail system in the nation. We asked the sheriff's department for data on how long individuals are kept in jail and on what charges.

The question we're trying to answer: How might justice differ depending on who you are and where you live?

We've found that people accused of very similar crimes, can end up in different situations depending on where they are arrested. Some get released. Others are taken to jail. We also sought data documenting arrests.

THE FEES

The sheriff's department's response: Pay $1,099.66 for the booking records and another $2,385 for information about arrests. The first fee was initially assessed before Villanueva took office. These records are electronic and department officials said the fees covered "data compilation, extraction or programming."

California law allows agencies to recoup certain production costs - a process that's changing in the digital era. Jim Ewert, general counsel at the California News Publishers Association, explained those charges use to pay for paper, ink and perhaps the time of the staffer manning the copier machine.

"With electronic data that should be even easier and should be much less expensive," Ewert said.

The Los Angeles Police Department charged $60 to extract its arrest data for KPCC/LAist. The Los Angeles County District Attorney and the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office each supplied their own massive datasets of prosecutions and outcomes free of charge.

When asked for comment on the radically different rates, Nicole Nishida, spokeswoman for the sheriff's department, said in an email "some agencies possess software that collects the data in the manner that is requested and other agencies may elect to waive the fees."

KPCC/LAist asked for a detailed breakdown of costs. The sheriff's department said one of the fees covered a staffer, working to extract booking data 12 hours for $91/hour.

We tried to negotiate. The department didn't budge. Last week, a staffer emailed to say since KPCC/LAist had declined to pay the assessed fee, our request would be canceled.

The sheriff's department is not alone in charging fees. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department asked KPBS for $354,524.22 to review and redact records from 48 use-of-force cases, according to the public media station.

A reputation for secrecy has long plagued the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, still in the shadow of a corruption scandal that ensnared its highest officials, including former Sheriff Lee Baca.

That scandal, which resulted in criminal convictions, led to a push for more accountability. L.A. County has since created a new oversight commission and appointed an inspector general for the sheriff's department.

A 'DIFFERENT LEVEL'

Yet, some watchdogs say access to records has remained a slog, one they worry will slow even more under the new regime.

Priscilla Ocen, a member of the Los Angeles County Civilian Oversight Commission, said access under former Sheriff Jim McDonnell "was not perfect."

"But under the new sheriff we're experiencing a different level of inability to access information," said Ocen, who is pushing for the commission to gain subpoena power, which would mandate access to the information it wants.

"We feel a bit rejected...we've been placed on the outside," Ocen said.

At least some of the delays are tied to the departure of a particularly productive woman in the discovery unit, Nishida acknowledged. The discovery unit processes public records requests. That woman, who has since retired, previously confided to KPCC that she had taken a leave because of the stress of requests piling up and the pressure of being one of few employees to service them.

In recent months, KPCC/LAist sought information about traffic violations for a story about a rarely-enforced law that requires cars to stay 3 feet away when passing bicyclists. We requested identical data from LAPD, the Long Beach Police Department and sheriff.

L.A. and Long Beach police responded in a couple weeks. The Sheriff's Department took 79 days.

THE LAW

The Public Records Act provides that public records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency. If copies of the records are requested, the Act gives an agency 10 days to determine and notify the requester if it possesses disclosable records. Under certain circumstances the Act allows for a 14-day extension.

Nishida said the department is working on adding personnel to handle public records requests. The burden isn't likely to lighten anytime soon. Recent legislation, SB 1421, requires law enforcement to disclose records of use of force investigations and findings of sexual assault and lying.

Unions representing law enforcement officers have filed more than 20 lawsuits across California trying to block release of those records that predate the law taking effect Jan.1. Union attorneys argue older records should continue to be shielded in keeping with the expectation of privacy members held at the time of the incident. They have asked courts to restrain agencies from disclosing the records to the public.

KPCC/LAist and the Los Angeles Times opposed the unions' attempts in L.A. and O.C. winning decisions in both Los Angeles and Orange County superior courts.

In another case, KPCC/LAist is seeking to intervene in the Downey Police Officer's Association request for a temporary restraining order to prevent release of records there. The union has petitioned a court to demand the city of Downey destroy records older than five years, which they argue is in line with the city's five-year retention schedule.

California's Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerra has been under fire for refusing to turn over older records, saying he wanted more clarity before releasing records in cases that predate Jan. 1. The First Amendment Coalition is suing Becerra over his position.

Aside from challenges to the scope of the law, Villanueva contends costs are an issue to fulfilling requests.

"When everyone asks for everything back to when Sherman Block was a deputy, it becomes very, very labor intensive, and it would require an enormous amount of manpower," said Villanueva, referencing the sheriff whose death in office in 1998 cleared the way for Baca to be elected.

Villanueva made those comments last month at a briefing for reporters at the Hall of Justice in downtown Los Angeles.

He acknowledged public records requests were "stacking up."

"People are asking for the world," he said.