Update (Feb. 4, 2020): The California Court of Appeal issued its opinion on Jan. 29, holding that the Attorney General must disclose all records in its possession that fall within S.B. 1421’s disclosure provisions, even if the records relate to another agency’s employee. The court explained that the statute clearly requires disclosure of all records and the legislative history only supports that interpretation.
For the first time in decades in California, the public has a legal right to access records of police misconduct and excessive force under the California Public Records Act, thanks to S.B. 1421, which went into effect in January. However, in a case before the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, the California Department of Justice is seeking to limit the scope of the bill and require law enforcement agencies to provide only information about their own employees, arguing that records within its possession need not be disclosed if they relate to another agency’s employee.
In a friend-of-the-court-brief filed in the case — Becerra v. Superior Court for the City and County of San Francisco — on Sept. 25, Reporters Committee attorneys urged the court to reject the California DOJ’s efforts to “evade the public’s right to access police misconduct records” and argued that such an interpretation “disregards the plain text and purpose” of the California Public Records Act and undermines the public’s interest in understanding how government agencies conduct the people’s business. The California Public Records Act is written to ensure government transparency, and attorneys for the Reporters Committee argue that S.B. 1421 should be interpreted to serve that purpose, and that any record, regardless of origin, must be disclosed so long as the agency in question maintains it.
Public access to records regarding police misconduct and excessive force are crucial in “building public trust of local law enforcement and exposing misconduct,” according to the brief, which also notes that these records reveal how law enforcement agencies conduct internal investigations and discipline their employees.
“In an era where journalists routinely use large data sets to reveal patterns and trends, it is imperative for the people to have access to public records maintained by their agencies,” attorneys state in the brief. “Although less than a year has passed since S.B. 1421 went into effect, it is abundantly clear that it has enabled important reporting on matters of the highest importance.”
Public access to these types of public records have brought to light issues of public concern. For example, in July, the San Jose Mercury News reported on an incident involving a San Jose State University police officer who tased, kneed and beat a man with a baton. The man suffered broken ribs, collapsed lungs, and cuts on his face and head. The university fired the officer, but with the support of the police department, the officer won on appeal was reinstated. Public records showed that the university’s investigation conflicted with that of the police department about whether or not the officer followed protocol.
Public records may also reveal that some agencies have little to no reported misconduct. For instance, the Napa Valley News has reported that in the past decade Napa Valley law enforcement agencies have had just one report of serious misconduct, in which an officer lied on the job, according to records.
Reporters Committee attorneys also argue in the brief that it is impractical and unduly burdensome to require the general public to ask each department for records of its employees when one agency — the California DOJ — maintains records from law enforcement entities across the state.
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and represents journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.