From: SF Chronicle
By: Kimberly Veklerov, 4/26/2019
A new transparency law focused on police misconduct in California has exposed numerous instances of illicit activity under the color of law — sometimes going back years — and a slew of additional records are expected to come from Bay Area law enforcement agencies in the coming weeks and months.
Many of the revelations to come from SB1421 are the product of record requests filed by news outlets across the state, including The Chronicle, which joined in a collaborative called the California Reporting Project to file hundreds of public records requests for these newly unsealed records.
Specifically, the unsealed cases provide details on officers who:
- fired a gun
- used force that resulted in great bodily injury or death
- sexually assaulted a member of the public
- lied, falsified reports, tampered with evidence or engaged in other forms of dishonesty
While the statute, SB1421, went into effect Jan. 1, few records were immediately released for public consumption. Every law enforcement agency in the state has its own record retention policy, volume of misconduct cases and staff bandwidth for tracking down and redacting files. Departments also have varying definitions of what constitutes “great bodily injury,” said Rocky Lucia, an attorney who represents police unions across California. The statute does not include a definition.
Some law enforcement agencies, especially smaller ones, lack redaction software, said Shaun Rundle, deputy director of the California Peace Officers Association.
“The bottom line is, we’re just trying to work with it,” Rundle said. “We don’t create the laws, we just enforce them. SB1421 is the law of the land now, so we’re going to find a way to comply.”
Lucia and others sued on behalf of police unions to prevent the release of pre-2019 records, saying the law could not be applied retroactively. But a state appeals court dismissed that argument and ruled that SB1421 applies to all records, no matter when they were created.
Just a few months into the law taking effect, we have already learned a great deal about previously unknown police misconduct.
- In Antioch, an internal investigation found Sgt. Santiago Castillo repeatedly padded his hours, mishandled evidence and provided sensitive information to “known criminals.” The 21-year veteran of the department ultimately resigned last year after Chief Tammany Brooks wrote a letter in late 2017 stating his intent to fire Castillo.
- Two Santa Clara County corrections officers were fired in 2016 and 2017 after investigators found that one deputy used unnecessary force when she choked and stepped on an inmate and both attempted to cover it up.
- An investigation by the Fairfield Police Department turned up three officers who engaged in sexual misconduct with members of the public, four officers who were found to have withheld evidence, committed forgery or falsified reports, and several others who used force that resulted in broken bones and two deaths. The records spanned more than two decades.
- A Walnut Creek police officer kept his job after investigators in 2017 found that he had mishandled evidence in dozens of cases and may have left a bag of Vicodin at the scene of an arrest. Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton said she would review all the cases he handled, according to KQED and the Bay Area News Group.
- In Richmond, a 2016 sexual exploitation scandal involving a teenage girl and multiple Bay Area law enforcement agencies resulted in the suspension of one Richmond police officer for sexual misconduct and the firing of another for dishonesty.
- An Alameda County sheriff’s deputy who was charged with severely beating a suspect in a San Francisco alley in 2015 had previously been involved in a pair of fatal shootings, one less than two months before the baton attack.
At least one Bay Area district attorney said he would re-examine past cases and charging decisions after new misconduct allegations came to light, according to a report.
For decades, California had some of the strongest protections for law enforcement personnel records in the country. But a package of bills that went into effect this year, including SB1421, broadened public access in the state.
The others include a law that requires agencies to post their policies and training materials online, while another compels departments to release body-camera footage of certain major incidents.
State Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who authored SB1421, said she has been surprised by the sheer number of sexual assault cases released so far this year. She said the statute is helping to “build back trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
For those whose family members have been killed by law enforcement, the records can ease their frustration by providing more information on how investigations were handled, Skinner said.
“Many agencies acted quickly when there was serious misconduct,” she said. “I hope, going forward, any agency that did not act swiftly and definitively would now do so.”
Lucia, meanwhile, said the law “fuels the flames” of police critics and activists and might distort public perception of misconduct, because all the records are coming out at once.
Investigators might now alter their behavior during probes into use of force and officer-involved shootings, knowing their statements will be made public, Lucia said.
“I think it’s going to change the way people describe events. Anyone, when they put words onto a page, will be mindful that a sentence can be taken out of context,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is afraid of transparency. What we’re afraid of is the spin.”