THE HOTLY CONTESTED ISSUE OF PUBLIC ACCESS TO LAW ENFORCEMENT RECORDS
In this week’s LA Weekly, reporter Gene Maddaus writes about the culture of secrecy surrounding police records, what information the public has the right to know, and the negative impact lack of law enforcement transparency has on community trust.
Maddaus talks with Mark Arner, a San Diego Union-Tribune journalist reporting on local law enforcement officers’ “dirty laundry,” who came up against opposition from police attorneys, as well as WitnessLA’s editor, Celeste Fremon, the LA Police Protective League’s Kristi Eckard, and former LA Times reporter, Robert Faturechi, among others.
A bill by CA Senator Mark Leno would increase public access to officers’ personnel files in instances of serious uses of force and alleged misconduct, but has come up against serious opposition from police unions.
Here’s a clip from Maddaus’ story:
In the year and a half since Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, a national movement has spread to demand greater police accountability. A spate of incidents — most of them shootings, many captured on video — has drawn attention to police abuses across the country.
Los Angeles is used to thinking of itself as a model of police reform. But L.A. hasn’t exactly dodged controversial police shootings. Black Lives Matter activists have called for the resignation of Chief Charlie Beck over the shooting of Ezell Ford, an unarmed and mentally ill man who was killed in South L.A.
Still, L.A. has not had a recent incident of police misconduct that captured national headlines. That may be a sign that the LAPD has reformed itself. Or it could be that it is very difficult to get police records in California.
Last May, LAPD officer Clifford Proctor shot and killed Brendon Glenn, a homeless man who was panhandling outside a bar in Venice. Glenn was shot in the back. A surveillance camera captured the shooting, and it was disturbing enough for Beck to recommend that charges be filed against the officer. But the department has refused to release the video, which has kept the Glenn shooting a local story.
In the Ford case, Beck found that the two officers acted according to department policy. The Police Commission overruled him, but the consequence of that decision is unknown. The department may have disciplined them — or not.
“We don’t know what actually happened,” says Melina Abdullah, one of the leaders of the L.A. chapter of Black Lives Matter. “That has been a huge issue for us.”
“This obsession with secrecy does not make for a healthy relationship between law enforcement and the communities they police,” says Celeste Fremon, editor of the Witness L.A. blog and a former L.A. Weekly contributor, who is writing a book about brutality in the Sheriff’s Department. “If we saw the department’s rationale, then maybe we’d agree with it and maybe we wouldn’t, but we’d at least know what they were thinking. But the attitude is, ‘That’s for us to know and you to find out. Trust us.’ It infantilizes the public.”
On issues such as climate change and the minimum wage, California is on the cutting edge of progressive politics. But the state ranks near the bottom when it comes to providing access to police records. Conservative, law-and-order states like Florida and Texas allow almost unfettered access to records relating to police discipline, while liberal states like California and New York, where law enforcement unions are most powerful, have made them off-limits.
“All of this has been done to protect the job security and reputation of rank-and-file police officers,” says Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.
THE PATH FROM MISBEHAVING PROSECUTOR TO THE JUDICIAL BENCH
Two prosecutors tied to a string of jailhouse informant-related misconduct scandals plaguing the Orange County District Attorney’s Office—Michael Murray and Larry Yellin—are currently running for Superior Court judgeships. And if elected, they wouldn’t be the first prosecutors accused of misdeeds to win a seat on the bench.
As part of a recent investigation, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting uncovered 120 wrongful convictions due to prosecutorial misconduct in Massachusetts over the last 30 years. And seven prosecutors with histories of misconduct moved on to higher positions, including judgeships.
One scholar studying prosecutorial misconduct at Yale, Laura Fernandez, called the idea of misbehaving prosecutors becoming judges “deeply disturbing.”
The Marshall Project’s Beth Schwartzapfel has more on the issue. Here’s a clip:
“The idea that an individual responsible for such serious misconduct could effectively stroll into the office of judge is deeply disturbing,” says Laura Fernandez, a Yale research scholar who studies prosecutorial misconduct. No one has yet faced charges related to the scandal, but one deputy district attorney resigned and four sheriff’s deputies refused to testify in a related hearing, citing their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. “More troubling still, this appears to be the tip of the iceberg,” John Van de Kamp, a former state attorney general, and Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California-Irvine, wrote last year in a letter to the Justice Department, requesting A FEDERAL INQUIRY1. “Compelling evidence of pervasive police and prosecutorial misconduct in Orange County…has caused us grave concern.”
The judicial election is June 7.
At the heart of the scandal is a database the Orange County Sheriff’s office uses to track the placement of informers in the jail. Use of jailhouse informers is constitutional, as long as the informer happens to hear the defendant talk, unprompted. But the Supreme Court said informers can’t elicit information from someone who already has a lawyer — that would too closely resemble an interrogation. What’s more, any deals brokered with informants, and any information that might undermine the informants’ credibility — say, that they were informants in other cases, or that they have lied on the stand in the past — must be turned over to the defense.
The database first came to light when Orange County Public defender Scott Sanders combed through thousands of pages of records and pieced it together. Sanders was representing confessed mass murderer Scott Dekraai, whom DAs targeted with the scheme. Documents and subsequent hearings revealed that it wasn’t just Dekraai—the DA’s office had been violating these constitutional prohibitions for years. In a searing ruling issued last March, Orange County Superior Court judge Thomas Goethals removed the entire county DA’s office — all 250 attorneys — from Dekraai’s case, the highest-profile murder case the county has ever seen, ruling that the DA had proved himself incapable of achieving “compliance with his constitutional…obligations in this case.”
Now, armed with new revelations from the database and its fallout, defense lawyers have begun to unravel other cases in which jailhouse informers may have been used illegally against their clients. A handful of these cases raise questions about Murray and Yellin.
LOS ANGELES CITY ATTORNEY MIKE FEUER DISCUSSES THE INADEQUACIES OF PROP. 47
Speaking at a luncheon hosted by the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum, LA City Attorney Mike Feuer said that voter-approved Pop. 47 has not fulfilled all of its promises.
Prop. 47, which went into effect in November of 2014, reduced six non-serious felonies to misdemeanors, and was supposed to save the state hundreds of millions of dollars. That money was supposed to get pumped into community-based rehabilitation and other services targeting recidivism.
But a report from California’s non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office found that Governor Jerry Brown’s budget under-counted the dollar amount Proposition 47 saved the state by about $100 million. And Prop. 47 has taken much of the punch out of alternative courts’ rehabilitation strategies, says Feuer.
LA Downtown News’ Eddie Kim has the story. Here’s a clip:
“Almost no one has gotten anything close to meaningful drug rehabilitation, and we’ve prosecuted thousands of these cases,” Feuer said Monday at a luncheon at the Downtown Palm hosted by the Los Angeles Current Affairs Forum. “The system is broken at every level.”
Feuer told the audience of approximately 70 people that he understood why such reform was necessary. As a state assemblyman during the recession, he observed then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger siphoning rehabilitation funds away from state prisons. Feuer became City Attorney in 2013.
Feuer said arrests for the felonies-turned-misdemeanors have plummeted “by more than 50%.” Those who are arrested show up for court less frequently, and people who are convicted typically receive a sentence that is shorter than the minimum length for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to hold someone in a local jail, he added.
“So how do you incentivize someone to go through rehab when the consequence of a conviction is no jail time?” he asked. “Which then feeds into the lack of interest of police and sheriffs in arresting in the first place.”
Despite the shortfalls, Feuer said Prop. 47 has yielded some positives. He pointed to unprecedented collaboration and discussion with judges, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, Sheriff Jim McDonnell, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck, county supervisors and others.
PULITZERS AND MORE FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE-RELATED JOURNALISM
Here are some not-to-be-missed 2016 Pulitzer prize-winners on the 100th annual awarding of the prize:
– ProPublica’s T. Christian Miller and The Marshall Project’s Ken Armstrong for “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.”
(For more on this incredible story, we recommend listening to “Anatomy of Doubt,” the accompanying episode of This American Life.)
– Sun Newspaper’s John Hackworth for powerful editorials following Florida corrections officers’ deadly assault on an inmate.
– The Los Angeles Times’ staff members for their reporting on breaking news after the San Bernardino terrorist attacks.
– The Washington Post staff for its eye-opening database detailing when and why law enforcement officers use deadly force.