Bill Watch

CA Attorney General Sued Over Denying Public Records Request Under New Police Transparency Law

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

On Thursday, February 14, the First Amendment Coalition filed a lawsuit challenging California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s decision to withhold certain state police misconduct and use-of-force records publicly requested under a new police transparency law, SB 1421.

While a number of law enforcement agencies across the state, including the California Highway Patrol, have released personnel records and other files since SB 1421 went into effect on January 1, AG Becerra and many more top public safety officials have chosen to deny records requests made under the new law, citing pending police union-led lawsuits challenging SB 1421’s retroactivity.

For those unfamiliar, SB 1421 rolled back a 1978 law that, for four decades, shielded law enforcement records from public and media scrutiny, even in cases of serious misconduct–no state was more secretive.

The new law makes records related to police misconduct and serious and fatal uses of force available to the media and the public via California Public Records Act requests.

SB 1421 grants the public access to personnel records of officers who are found to have been dishonest in the “reporting, investigation, or prosecution of a crime.” Until this year, even prosecutors have been barred from accessing personnel records that may impact their cases, even for officers with a history of lying in police reports or planting evidence.

Records of on-duty sexual assault, including when cops exchange sex for leniency, also became newly available to the public under SB 1421.

Additionally, the new law says that police agencies must release records of incidents in which officers use certain kinds of force–including when cops discharge their firearms or Tasers, use a weapon to strike a person’s head or neck, or use force that results in serious bodily harm or death.

Law enforcement unions across the state were quick to seek court intervention to block the release of documents created before January 1, 2019, arguing that SB 1421 did not explicitly say it applied to past records. In some cases, officials went so far as to destroy police files likely to become public record under the new law.

In response to a records request from the free-speech-focused First Amendment Coalition, Attorney General Becerra’s office said it would not release files on Department of Justice cops, at least not before seeing whether the police union lawsuits prevailed in court. Becerra’s decision reportedly baffled advocates and Senator Nancy Skinner, who says she made sure to send a letter to the AG’s office clarifying that the bill she authored was intended to be retroactive and apply to all eligible records in police departments’ possession.

The Department’s refusal to release any records covered by SB 1421 is anathema to the new law’s purpose of increasing transparency,” the FAC wrote in its complaint. “As the Legislature found when it enacted the new law, the ‘public has a strong, compelling interest in law enforcement transparency because it is essential to having a just and democratic society.” And, FAC said, there was no “indication” that state legislators only intended for the public to know about future records of police misconduct when they wrote and passed the bill.

“As the highest law enforcement officer in the state, the Attorney General has an obligation to not only comply with the California Public Records Act, but to send the right message about transparency to police departments across the state,” said David Snyder, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “Unfortunately, the Attorney General has done neither. By denying public access to these crucial files, he has given a green light to other departments to disregard the new law.”

So far, just one judge has issued a ruling in an SB 1421 case.

Earlier this month, a Contra Costa County Superior Court judge became the first jurist to rule on the issue of SB 1421’s retroactivity, dealing a major blow to the law enforcement unions fighting to limit the reach of the new law.

A similar decision is expected next week in Los Angeles. On Friday, February 15, an LA judge handling the SB 1421 case brought by the Los Angeles Police Protective League appeared poised to rule in favor of retroactivity, as well. The judge had previously granted the police union a temporary stay, blocking the LAPD from releasing records retroactively, pending a February hearing. Back in December, the City of Los Angeles called on the court to deny the LAPPL’s request, arguing that the “most reasonable interpretation” was that state lawmakers “intended SB 1421 to allow for disclosure of all Specified Records in an agency’s possession, regardless of when they were created.”

32 Comments

  • We all know there are those who abuse their power as cops, however, they’re the rare exception, not the norm. With the exception of a soldier in combat, there’s no other job like policing, where split second decisions are made and the difference between right and wrong is so blurred. In a use of force, for instance, what might be completely justifiable, will often look horrible on video, shocking the average person.

    I understand the public’s right to know, however, I also know police are human and make mistakes. Unless they’re REPEATED mistakes or, worse, crimes, I don’t think it should he held against them for their entire career. Unfortunately this law will do just that.

    It is amazing and ironic to me that sex offenders in California no longer have to register for life (SB384) and SB136, authored by the same idiot (Scott Weiner) will no longer allow sentence enhancements for previous convictions. In effect, many sex offenders and all felons will now have a clean slate. All past transgressions are forgiven. There’s no such redemption for the people who risk their lives everyday, the ones who USED to be the good guys….cops.

    You can’t ignore the fact that there is a war on police these days. Criminals victims, police are the bad guys and victims aren’t even mentioned anymore.

  • Taylor, just a little observation, nit pick, I find it curious how & when you use the words cop(s) vs officers. I’m not a big fan of the term cop(s) as it is often used, disrespectful in tone. Oversensative, sure, but sense bias. This matter should bring bright light to Sheriff Villanueva’s first reconciliation reinstatement, “poster boy” Mandoyan. You think that maybe Mandoyan brings a bit of liability to work each day & the Sheriff’s decision to lead with him, a question of judgment?

    @ Apostle, much to agree with but truly a product of the unions winning the battle but losing the war.

    • The Past, your obsession with Mandoyan is perplexing, deeply concerning, deeply troubling, and baffling. Why don’t you do old school way, like deputies with honor, do, meet up with him at the parking lot, and discuss your issues with him?

      Taking cheap jabs at him, from behind is cowardly, be honorable.

      • @ Joe – The perplexing, deeply concerning, deeply troubling and baffling is the reinstatement of Mandoyan. If any previous Sheriff of Los Angeles County would have done the same, you too, would take issue with that.

        You are the only commentator on WLA who gets a “hissy fit” when the Mandoyan fiasco comes up. Don’t know if you have a bromance or not but the denial by you is all so obvious. Funny how no one wants to call a spade, a spade.

        As far as the “parking lot” callout is concerned, it sounds noble but rarely if ever, happens.

        • Mr. Eyes and Ears, if gossip, innuendo, personal attacks and discalification is your thing, go for it.

          It is not what I believe happened, nor what I wish to be true, but what I can reasonably prove.

          There is a very interesting case going on right now, you may or may know about. Mr. Jussie Smollett feigned an assault for political gain, unfortunately for him, his allegation is falling apart.

          Yes, alleged victims sometimes lie to hurt someone, just because. So before you deprive someone of life and property let’s make sure we are right. I rather see many guilty go free than one innocent person screwed.

          You may have a difficulty understanding the concept, but it is okay too.

  • @Joe, agree with you to an extent, Mandoyan is not the biggest part of my discomfort, it’s the optics & the decision to reinstate. What lead to the firing has not been denied, either by Mandoyan or the Department, so that’s a real problem. Nor has the Sheriff said, that although these are sensitive & politically charged events, this particular case wasn’t so serious as to warrant discharge.

    • I believe the sheriff already explained your concerns, whether you like it or not, it is your choice. If I am correct as to who you are, you are not morally superior, and the same argument “optics” could be made about your reinstatement.

      In any event, since you are so passionate about your “optics” concern, quit hiding behind the screen and have a conversation with Alex and Mandoyan. Then please put your gripes to rest.

      In addition, this article is about the attorney general, stay on topic.

      • This article is equally attributed to SB 1421 and it being retroactive, which would bring more light to Mandoyan’s controversial reinstatement.
        Don’t fool yourself into believing that there’s nothing more about your boy, Mandoyan. The whole scenario stinks.

    • Um, the sheriff has said exactly what you claim he hasn’t. The case was never discharge worthy, and there was no evidence to support the criminal allegations presented, period. You should pay more attention to what the sheriff says and less attention to what Maya Lau says.

  • Sadly, Nancy Skinner only has a Master’s from U.C., Berkeley; no J.D., and no passage of the California Bar Exam.

    Otherwise,

    Nancy Skinner for A.G.

  • LASD Apostle, spoken like a true apostle. The reason we have the law, to begin with, is that many people see the matter differently than you do. The “bad cop” is not the rare exception. It may not encompass all or most, but a rare exception it is not. Many an act committed by an officer will be covered by other officers and never make it to the light of day. And, there is no “war” on cops and no one treats you worse than criminals, as you claim. The pendulum is merely swinging away from the days when you could do just about anything with impunity to one where people are demanding fairness, transparency and respect, and want to hold cops accountable just as any other employer can hold his or her employees accountable. Its hard to change your ways, but welcome to the new normal.

    And, what is this about being treated worse than criminals. If you do something wrong, you get the benefit of the doubt, and unlike employees in other settings or other criminals, you can keep your mouth shut about the incident and you will get very good defense thanks to the City/County and the union you guys seem to complain about so much. At worst, you may lose your job and if you are hit with a judgment, the city or county will cover it, depending on who you work for. The security guard at Walmart can get fired for not smiling at or greeting the customers, so stop complaining.

  • I totally agree with CF, there should not be one crooked officer or deputy in law enforcement. If it was not because of what I know to be true, I would argue and disagree with CF. I know more than one deputy at ICIB, who concealed exculpatory evidence, coached witnesses, lied on reports and on the stand to get another deputy convicted of wrong doing only for racial and political bias.

    One person wrongfully punished for statistical, racial, political reasons or otherwise is too many, and if some are willing to hurt their own, they can certainly hurt any one.

    So yes, I agree with CF. Further CF, don’t expect to read what I stated on the LA Times written by Maya, she is not interested in that type of injustice, that would vaccinate her narrative.

    • Joe Nobuckles:

      “I know more than one deputy at ICIB, who concealed exculpatory evidence, coached witnesses, lied on reports and on the stand to get another deputy convicted of wrong doing only for racial and political bias.”

      AV is now in charge of ICIB.

      So.

      When is his news conference to announce the extirpation of that ICIB wrongdoing?

      • Stand by, stand by….in due time we will know…do you remember Deputy Craig, the character from “Pandora Box” the one who went to intimidate the FBI agent? Well that character did many other deputies wrong as well. And for some deputies, they were lucky to see Karma do justice.

        I would never be happy for any other deputy’s disgrace, and misery, I would pray for him as it is reported he is at a medical jail dying from cancer. May god help him.

        If I remember correctly Alex already told the BOS something to the effect he knew of cases where executives lied and forced others to lie to hurt deputies. He said he would aggressively prosecute those and if needed, he would take it to the state attorney’s office.

        Be patient, in sheriff Villanueva We trust.

        • O.K.

          A timeline, or some other indication of how long all of this will take?

          As the guy-in-charge AV should be rolling some heads by now, ya think?

          • Unlike the McDonnell/Terán regime, he will do it right. Following due process.

            I guess you have missed all the action, but he fired Terán and company, and most of those at will lying executives. He has ROD some and I assure there will be more.

            Mr. Cognistator, I know you know all this, but I guess you want to see me write it. I can only speculate why.

  • Re Skinner’s (an ironic author name for this bill) SB 1421, here are reported supporters and opposers. Just this one bill shows how much the political climate of California has changed in the last 30-40 years. Much could be said about the shift, and what to do about it. One strategy I have noticed from ‘radicals and renegades’ in the last 15 years or so is the intentional separation of municipal law enforcement agencies/personnel from the idea of justice; LEAs are in the minds of many no longer a necessary condition for justice to take place (exist). In fact, many today see LEAs as an obstacle to justice. Yet the very term ‘justice’ is unmoored.

    SUPPORT: (Verified 8/28/18)

    American Civil Liberties Union of California (co-source)
    Anti-Recidivism Coalition (co-source)
    California Chapters of Black Lives Matter (co-source)
    California Faculty Association (co-source)
    California News Publisher Association (co-source)
    Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (co-source)
    Youth Justice Coalition (co-source)
    A New Path
    A New Way of Life
    Advancement Project California
    AF3IRM
    AFSCME 3299
    Alliance for Boys and Men of Color
    Alliance San Diego
    American Civil Liberties Union of California
    Anaheim Community Coalition
    Anti Police-Terror Project
    Arab American Civic Council
    Asian Americans Advancing Justice
    Asian Law Alliance
    Bay Area Chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice
    Bay Area Student Activist
    Bend the Arc: Jewish Action
    Berkeley City Council
    Black American Political Association of California, Sacramento Chapter
    Black Jewish Justice Alliance
    Black and Pink, Inc.
    Cage-Free Repair
    California Alliance for Youth and Community
    California Broadcasters Association
    California Coalition for Women Prisoners
    California Church IMPACT
    California Federation of Teachers
    California Immigrant Policy Center
    California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance
    California Latinas for Reproductive Justice
    California Public Defenders Association
    California Nurses Association
    Californians Aware
    Californians for Justice
    Californians United for a Responsible Budget
    Catholic Worker
    CDTech
    Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice
    Chican@s Unidos
    Children’s Defense Fund
    Chispa
    Church in Ocean Park
    Coalition for Justice and Accountability
    Climate Action Campaign
    Committee for Racial Justice
    Community Coalition
    Conference of California Bar Associations
    Council on American-Islamic Relations, California
    Courage Campaign, California
    Critical Resistance
    Davis People Power
    Dignity and Power Now
    Drain the NRA
    Earl B. Gilliam Bar Association
    East Bay Community Law Center
    Education Trust–West
    Ella Baker Center for Human Rights
    Equal Justice Society
    Equity for Santa Barbara
    Fannie Lou Hamer Institute
    First Amendment Coalition
    Friends Committee on Legislation of California
    Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization
    Homeboy Industries
    Immigrant Legal Resource Center
    Indivisible StateStrong
    InnerCity Struggle
    Interfaith Movement
    Interfaith Worker Justice San Diego
    International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers
    IUCC Advocated for Peace and Justice
    Journey House
    Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance
    LA Voice
    LAANE
    Law Enforcement Accountability Network
    Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area
    Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
    Long Beach Chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice
    Los Angeles National Lawyers Guild
    March and Rally Los Angeles
    Marin Chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice
    Media Alliance
    Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund
    Mid-City CAN
    Mother’s Quest
    Motivating Individual Leadership for Public Advancement
    National Association of Social Workers, California Chapter
    National Juvenile Justice Network
    NorCal Chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice
    Oak View ComUNIDAD
    Oakland Privacy
    Orange County Communities Organized for Responsible Development
    Orange County Equality Coalition
    Orange County Racial Justice Collaborative
    Pacific Media Workers Guild
    Partnership for the Advancement of New Americans
    People Acting in Community Together
    Pico California
    PolicyLink
    Prevention Institute
    Project Rebound
    Public Health Justice Collective
    Reporters Committee
    Resilience Orange County
    Riverside Coalition for Police Accountability
    Root & Rebound
    R Street
    Sacramento Chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice
    San Diego Chapter of Jack and Jill of America
    San Diego LGBT Community Center
    San Diego Organizing Project
    San Diego Unified School District
    San Francisco District Attorney
    San Francisco National Lawyers Guild
    San Francisco Public Defender
    San Gabriel Valley Immigrant Youth Coalition
    Santa Ana Building Healthy Communities
    Santa Ana Unidos
    Santa Barbara Chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice
    Santa Clara District Attorney
    Service Employees International Union
    Showing Up for Racial Justice Sacramento
    Services, Immigrant Rights, and Education Network
    Sillicon Valley De-BUG
    Social Justice Learning Institute
    Sonoma County Democratic Party
    Southeast Asia Resource Action Center
    Stop LAPD Spying Coalition
    Street Level Health Project
    Think Dignity
    Transgender Law Center
    UAW2865, UC Student-Workers Union
    Union of Alameda County Public Defender’s Office
    UNITE HERE Local 11
    Urban Peace Institute
    Urban Peace Movement
    Village Connect
    W. Haywood Burns Institute
    White People 4 Black Lives
    Women’s Foundation of California
    Women For: Orange County
    Young Women’s Freedom Center
    Youth ALIVE!
    @Press4word
    Numerous individuals

    OPPOSITION: (Verified 8/28/18)

    Association of Deputy District Attorneys
    Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs
    California Association of Highway Patrolmen
    California District Attorneys Association
    California Peace Officers’ Association
    California Police Chiefs Association
    California Narcotic Officers’ Association
    California State Sheriffs’ Association
    Chief Probation Officers of California
    Los Angeles County Professional Peace Officers Association
    Los Angeles Probation Officers
    Los Angeles Police Protective League
    Peace Officers Research Association of California
    San Bernardino Sheriff-Coroner

    • Numbers don’t lie. The people have spoken as the “Blue Wave” continues.
      Many of those riding this wave are Law Enforcement Leaders in SoCal.

    • Charlie Unit:

      “In fact, many today see LEAs as an obstacle to justice.”

      DEFINITIONS:

      JUSTICE: The quality of being fair and reasonable.

      JUST: Behaving according to what is morally right and fair.

      Source: New Oxford American Dictionary. This is the dictionary in your Apple computer, if you have one.

  • Dos Centavos, timely citation, especially since George Orwell (Eric Blair) was an imperial police officer in India.

    Cognistator, Thanks for the instruction. I hadn’t thought to consult the dictionary. That should do the trick, enough anyway to re-anchor the many diverse justice projects. Well done. Care to define what is ‘morally right and fair’? Or will we find that answer in the dictionary as well?

  • Charlie Unit:

    “Care to define what is ‘morally right and fair’ “?

    The answer to that question will have to be found in consultation with your conscience.

    • Cognistator, that is a better answer than I thought might be offered. Two things about the criterion of conscience. What of the person (or, as some have argued on university campuses, a whole class of persons) whose conscience has been damaged in a way that it becomes an unreliable umpire? For example, Marx’s claim about people having false consciousness (blinds a member of an economic class to exploitations and injustices) or psychology’s DSM 5 reporting all sorts of interfering maladies. Second, there have been many people throughout history in different cultures practicing some rather gruesome rituals on other human beings (including, I would argue, against unborn humans in modern America). Yet in many instances their conscience for whatever reason gave them little notion that those gruesome rituals were somehow unreasonable…morally wrong and unfair. How do we account for the reliability of conscience in this instance?

      More interestingly though, your posts have implied that the determination of what is ‘reasonable…morally right and fair’ is less an individual matter of conscience and is more a community affair. Take the bill in question, SB 1421. By championing its author, Ms. Skinner, as someone worthy of being California AG simply by being its author, it looks as if you believe SB 1421 will achieve a state of justice that coheres with your – and your community’s (whatever it is) – sense of justice: what is ‘reasonable…morally right and fair.’

      Given its immoderate ex post facto bent is it possible that SB 1421 will also produce instances of injustice: what is unreasonable…morally wrong and unfair? I’d be obliged if you think of procedural justice in your answer, if you choose to answer. If not, I enjoyed the dialogue.

  • I query as to why some police agencies have no problems enforcing laws but eskew transparency. You can’t have it both ways.

    • (next to last post for awhile)

      LAC Taxpayer, without knowing which agencies and their circs you have in mind, I don’t believe that you’ll get an argument against your position in any developed, professional Western police agency. Law enforcement legitimacy is bound up with as much public transparency as is reasonable for the category of work that is involved. You will, of course, admit that transparency for the Parks and Recreation Department or Sanitation will look differently than the Police Department? Transparency is a matter of degree. Ask our FBI and alphabet federal agencies about that. Any transparency ‘eschewing’ on the local level is in significant part driven by the protection of sworn members of law enforcement (and their families) from the genuine possibility of retaliation by bad actors. Civilian oversight and review have been two instruments used for decades, two centuries in some cases.

      As a legislative bill, SB1421 is unique for three reasons. First, it demonstrates that the political marriage between powerful law enforcement associations and bi-partisan legislators is over. There is only one political party in California today. And as the commentator above hinted, the blue wave is running ice cold (‘numbers don’t lie’). Second, the law is ex post facto and leverages the fertile and puerile minds of media and journalists (if they still exist) to rip events and players from historical context, and conduct a new trial using contemporary sensibilities (such people often believe themselves and their moment to be superior, morally enlightened than the historical person(s), events they bring up to condemn with two minutes of hate–Henley’s ‘dirty laundry’). Some of this may be justified. Some of it may not be warranted.

      Third, and most importantly, it is the first in a series of legislative and regulative steps to completely re-orient (overhaul, re-define) the productive work of law enforcement personnel. One might read that sentence a second time. People like Ms. Skinner (like BF Skinner) are never quite satisfied with one-shot legislation; we misunderstand power if we think she and others are done tinkering toward utopia. More stimulus will demand more response. New legislation will bring forth new regulative rules and will set up and incentivize a set of criteria by which sheriff and police departments will be evaluated. As a result, the local sheriff and police chief will lose some discretion and no longer control major areas in the means of production; scarce resources will naturally flow to meeting the legislative/regulative criteria. Any activity outside of the new criteria, say innovative pilot programs, drug enforcement, gang enforcement, good ol gumshoe patrol work, will be conducted at greater cost. There is likely an end game. Skinner and people like her are not dumb; they have the chessboard well thought out. If they wish to retain professional discretion over the means of production law enforcement leaders and union leaders should this very moment be mapping out strategies to preserve it.

      • Regarding the third point above, please refer to the following WLA story (Feb. 22): “At Contentious Meeting, LA County Supes Said Enough Is Enough & Banned Use of Pepper Spray on Kids. Now Comes the Challenge Of Making the Ban Work.” This is precisely how it happens. The pepper spray becomes the problem, not its (possible) misuse. Note the sagacious comments on what is likely to occur within probation facilities after the Board of Supervisors re-define a core means of production of the probation staff (removing CS). The BOS wish some version of Maori restorative justice could be adopted. Yet the U.S. is not New Zealand. BOS–tinkering toward utopia.

      • @ Charlie Unit, very gracious of you to respond.
        After rereading my text, I failed to insert “within” police agencies. Those “within” some police agencies would be the aforementioned associations consisting of line personnel.

        As previously mentioned in earlier post (2nd comment from the top) by “The Past”, he said that “unions winning the battle but losing the war” which is truly a stark revelation of things to come.

        Naturally speaking, SB 1421 will not be perfect but based upon reality and not perception, thus adding clarity to the bastion of a noble profession that has been undermined by the public while being taken advantage of by a minute segment of LEO’s.

        • LAC Taxpayer, I appreciate the position. On the whole, agreed.

          Politicians and special interest groups are nothing if not adroit at sensing weak spots and exploiting chinks in the shield/star. Law enforcement scandals are almost never met with stand alone, isolated approaches to unfortunate and intensely regrettable breaches of the public trust. Instead, they are today more often met with a philosophy of opportunism, a ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ school of thought (Chicago is one empirical example). Hence, SB 1421 is not merely a corrective measure ensuring thoroughgoing transparency, but a signal from one of the philosopher-queens (Senate whip Ms. Skinner at present being female) that ‘you LEA’s and LEO’s (Plato’s guardians) will heel.’ Special interest groups and media (the hounds) have been mobilized to ensure compliance. These particular political operatives know that when logic confronts power, logic does not win the policy debate. Emotion (the instrument of sophistry) trumps reason. And back down the rabbit hole we go, tinkering toward utopia. As I say, we’ll see a lot more of this. And many LEA leaders, knowing where their bread is buttered, will assent without resistance. Pleasure dialoging with you.

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