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Police Unions Fight To Block Public From Officer Records. California Newsrooms Fight Back

The scene at an officer-involved shooting in Los Feliz in 2015. (Photo by Brian Frank for KPCC/LAist)
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Up until Jan. 1, California was known for being one of the most secretive states in the nation when it came to access to police records. That was supposed to change with a new law that paved the way for access to records long out of public view.

But as SB 1421 went into effect, a law firm representing police unions quietly mounted a coordinated challenge. Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver has been arguing in various courts across the state that the law does not apply retroactively.

"The law is not clear," Tom Dominguez, the president of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs told KPCC/LAist. His group is among those in court to prevent the release of records that predate Jan. 1 of this year. "We are making sure our members rights are protected."

Attorneys for Orange County had signaled they intended to release records regardless of when the records were created.

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Now California newsrooms are banning together to fight for public access.

  • In Orange County, KPCC/LAist, Los Angeles Times and Voice of OC are seeking to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.
  • In Los Angeles, the Times has taken similar steps in a case brought by the Los Angeles Police Protective League.
  • And in case brought by the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Employee Benefits Association, KQED,Bay Area public media,joined the California News Publishers Association, the First Amendment Coalition and the Times to make their voices heard.

In each case, the positions remain the same. The unions contend the law does not apply retroactively. The publishers and their advocates argue it does.
"SB 1421 was enacted not just provide some right to future generations to access police records," said Kelly Aviles, an attorney representing KPCC/LAist and other newsrooms. "It was intended to remedy the lack of access to police records now."

So far, the law has rolled out unevenly. Some law enforcement agencies have begun to hand over records. Others have indicated their intention to do so.

And then there are the jurisdictions where law enforcement unions are actively trying to block requests. So far, unions for LAPD, San Bernardino County Sheriffs and Orange County Sheriff's officers have succeeded in getting temporary restraining orders preventing the release records until the matter can be more fully considered by the court.

Other challenges appear to be underway with unions representing deputies in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties.

Richard Levine is a partner with Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver, the firm representing all of the police unions challenging the law. He said his firm would have preferred if the California Supreme Court had taken up the dispute right away, but so far it has not done so.

No one wanted to litigate the matter in multiple counties, a "costly" endeavor, he said. But "it became clear what the legal route had to become" to restrict access to cases from before Jan. 1 until the courts can resolve the issue, added Levine.

The result could mean delays in access to records for months or longer.

When asked about the coordinated effort, Dominguez insisted the shared interest across unions is nothing unusual.

"We talk all the time," Dominguez said.

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Police unions have historically enjoyed influence both in Sacramento and with local governments. Over recent decades, that influence led to restricted access to disciplinary and other records for sworn officers.

But as the police shootings of unarmed black men spurred protests and sparked the Black Lives Matter movement, lawmakers were called to reevaluate protections California law granted police.

When they passed SB 1421, legislators unlocked vast amounts of previously withheld information. Files covered under the law give access to investigations of officer shootings and uses of force causing great bodily injury. The law also covers findings of officer dishonesty and sexual assault.

The press's interest is clear: Access to those investigations enables reporters to dive deep into the details of police shootings, identify which officers remain on the job despite findings of dishonesty and hold police leaders accountable for failing to address wrongdoing by staff.

"California has more law enforcement employees than any other state in the country," said KPCC's Chief Content Officer Kristen Muller. "Yet when it comes to holding officers accountable, decisions are too often made behind closed doors. Public access to these records is absolutely critical if residents want to understand how their communities are being kept safe."

An investigation by KPCC last year found California law shielded officers who had multiple shootings in their records -- and their employers -- from public scrutiny. Our findings, detailed in the podcast Repeat, include the fact that more than 30 Los Angeles County sheriff's officers opened fire at least three times during their careers and some were returned to the field time and again.

This story was updated at 6:00 p.m. on Jan. 18 to include Richard Levine's comments.

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