California newsrooms agree to share police records
California law enforcement agencies have been slow to release records about police dishonesty, sexual assault, excessive force or deadly shootings in response to a new law designed to bring transparency to policing in the state.
Only 1 in 5 agencies with sworn peace officers across California have begun to disclose records requested by news organizations under the new law, which took effect nearly three months ago. The data emerged Monday in a rollout of a new coalition of more than 30 media organizations, called the California Reporting Project, that have banded together to push law enforcement agencies to comply with the law.
The Press Democrat, which is a member of the project, requested records from 27 law enforcement agencies in Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake and Napa counties. Four agencies have so far handed over records made public by the law, including the Healdsburg, Sebastopol and St. Helena police departments and the Rohnert Park Public Safety Department.
Those records have revealed two incidents involving dishonesty by officers - one on a traffic ticket, the other in an official police report - as well as internal investigations into a 2011 deadly shooting and the 2017 case of a man who died while he was being arrested by public safety officers.
“Some agencies have been quick to respond. Others have held back. But I think all have heard our community’s clear and repeated insistence on a better understanding of how our local agencies police themselves,” said Catherine Barnett, executive editor of The Press Democrat.
California has had some of the most restrictive rules in the country for the public release of police misconduct and other internal investigations, keeping most information about deadly shootings, false police reports and sexual misconduct away from the public.
California’s landmark police transparency law passed last year, Senate Bill 1421, for the first time provided a sure avenue for the public to learn the details of sustained cases of sexual misconduct, dishonesty and other records related to personnel investigations.
Most North Coast agencies have requested more time to review and produce records to the public.
Just one agency one so far - the Santa Rosa Police Department - has refused to release records detailing investigations into deadly force or misconduct for cases before Jan. 1.
That stance is shared by some law enforcement unions that have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to get judges to bar the release of records created before 2019. Just last week, an appellate court upheld a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge’s decision affirming the law applied to any record held by the agency.
Santa Rosa police officials have indicated they will wait for the California Supreme Court to weigh in, according to the department’s response to The Press Democrat’s request.
California Supreme Court justices have so far declined to take up cases related to SB 1421, avoiding weighing in on battle lines drawn by law enforcement entities opposing public dissemination of police files created before 2019, including the state’s Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said none of the lower court decisions have statewide authority, and the battle to uphold the law will likely need to be decided by Supreme Court justices.
“Unless the police unions see the writing on the wall and stand down on their multi-pronged effort to undermine this law, I think it’s going to have to be ultimately decided by the California Supreme Court,” Snyder said.
Members of the news coalition have requested records from 675 law enforcement agencies in all 58 California counties and 29 state and eight regional agencies. So far, 134 police agencies have provided records in response to the requests.
Statewide, about 80 percent of records released so far to members of the coalition have involved use-of-force investigations by departments into the actions of their officers, including those involving deadly shootings. Another 15 percent of the cases involve sustained investigations into dishonesty, and 4 percent detailed sexual misconduct, according to statistics provided by the California Reporting Project.
The project includes the San Jose Mercury News and other Digital First Media newspapers in Northern and Southern California, KQED, the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee and other McClatchy papers in California, the San Francisco Chronicle and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley, among others. The newsrooms have agreed to set aside competition and work collaboratively to share records with each other and the public.