The California Attorney General’s Office is reviewing police misconduct and use-of-force investigation records that span the entire Golden State.
(CN) — The California Attorney General’s Office will review hundreds of thousands of use-of-force and misconduct records from its investigations of various law enforcement agencies across the state as part of an agreement with a San Francisco Bay Area free-speech group and National Public Radio station KQED.
State Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Friday his office intends to complete its review as part of a court-approved agreement by Sept. 26 and will make the records public. The announcement comes two years after the First Amendment Coalition sued to release personnel records on police shootings, misconduct, excessive force that resulted in death or “great bodily injury,” and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying by officers while on duty. The coalition sued the previous California AG Xavier Becerra, now the Secretary of Health and Human Services with the Biden administration.
Under Becerra, the attorney general’s office tried to keep those records private even after the passage of Senate Bill 1421, which requires the release of misconduct records under the California Public Records Act. Police agencies across the state argued the law should not be retroactive and only apply to records generated after the bill took effect on Jan. 1, 2019. But numerous courts across the state have ruled police agencies are not exempt from the law, including the attorney general’s office and that the duty to disclose the records was retroactive.
California Governor Gavin Newsom appointed Bonta as attorney general in April. His office’s change of tune toward the release misconduct records comes as a relief to the parties in the lawsuit.
“We think it’s a positive development that the attorney general seems to be taking interest in this issue,” said the coalition’s Berkeley-based attorney Michael Risher in a phone interview. “I hope that that not only will this lead to the attorney general turning over responsive records, but it seems that Bonta recognizes this issue as an important matter that ensures transparency for the state of California.”
But Bonta’s office continues to withhold records it claims are exempt from the California Public Records Act, said the attorneys who are suing the attorney general’s office. That includes the attorney general office’s reviews of district attorney offices’ decisions on whether to prosecute officers for possible criminal conduct.
“Those records are being withheld on attorney client privilege grounds,” said KQED’s attorney Thomas Burke from Davis Wright Tremaine when reached by phone. “If you’re really going to be transparent about police shootings, then those are the documents that the public would want to see with respect to the decision to prosecute. The public knows what those incidents are. We’ve been trying to get those records for years.”
Bonta called Friday’s announcement a “key step forward on the path toward justice.”
“For decades, peace officer misconduct records have been shrouded in secrecy,” Bonta said in a statement. “With Senate Bill 1421, that era of California’s history has come and gone. When we fight for transparency and accountability, we’re fighting to strengthen our institutions. And, by shining a light on misconduct where it occurs, we’re also working to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
First Amendment Coalition Executive Director David Snyder welcomes the new commitment to transparency from the attorney general’s office, even if it took two years and judge’s order.
“We expected that as the chief law enforcement agency of the state, they would sort of accept that Senate Bill 1421 was the law and produce the records,” Snyder said when reached by phone. “The attorney general’s office has made arguments that delayed production and prevented those records being released until they were ordered by the courts.”
The records under review involve police personnel and were created from 2014 through 2018, according to the attorney general’s office. The California Department of Justice says it will streamline its process to release records under SB 1421. The agency says it has released 16,000 pages so far on police agencies, including records on its own personnel.