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San Diego Sheriff Will Waive Fees For Use-Of-Force, Misconduct Records

Sheriff Bill Gore is shown talking to the media after being sworn in for anot...

Photo by Angela Carone

Above: Sheriff Bill Gore is shown talking to the media after being sworn in for another term on Jan. 5, 2015.

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Story updated at 5:15 p.m. February 18.

San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore confirmed to KPBS he will not charge to produce newly available records on incidents of use of force or confirmed cases of sexual assault and dishonesty by a deputy. KPBS previously received estimates totaling nearly $400,000 to remove private information from materials for dozens of cases.

The sheriff's change of heart comes after the large fees caught the attention of national media and directly follows a San Diego Union-Tribune journalist's conversations with Gore ahead of a planned editorial criticizing the charges.

The Sheriff's Department previously said the high price tag covers tools and time needed to redact records and cited a court case — which is under review by the state supreme court — that permits the agency to recoup those costs from the requester. But Gore told KPBS on Monday he grew concerned the large amount gave the appearance the department had something to hide, which he said is not the case.

"We looked at the perception that it creates that we’re trying to circumvent the law and make it cost prohibitive — that is not the intention of what we’re doing," Gore said in a phone interview.

Gore said the department will absorb the cost of the redaction process and that he plans to hire more personnel to get the job done quickly.

"It would take months and months and maybe up to years to get the material redacted as the law requires, so that doesn’t make any sense either," Gore said.

He said the fees would be waived for audio and video files — the largest expense in estimates received by KPBS — and likely for written materials, but he still needs to discuss details with his staff. He said he would eventually like to post finalized documents online, but that also has to be planned out.

Gore said he changed his mind on charging fees during Friday phone conversations with Union-Tribune Editorial and Opinion Director Matt Hall, who contacted the sheriff about an upcoming editorial regarding the records fees. Hall reported the sheriff's decision on social media that evening, but a department spokesperson was not immediately available to confirm to KPBS.

Matthew Halgren, a First Amendment attorney with Sheppard Mullin who is representing KPBS in other records disputes, said the sheriff’s change is positive but already required by law.

“It is good that the Sheriff’s Department will no longer demand exorbitant fees for redacting information from audio and video files,” Halgren said in an emailed statement. “This change in policy was necessary to bring the Department into compliance with the Public Records Act, which prohibits agencies from charging for redacting public records.”

Halgren said California law does not permit agencies to charge for removing information from documents that already exist.

“When an agency blurs out sensitive information in a video recording, it is redacting information from an existing record; it is not ‘extracting’ information to produce a new record. Therefore, the statute does not permit an agency to charge for that service,” Halgren said in an email.

The new state law that makes available police misconduct records has prompted lawsuits across the state, including in San Diego, as officers and agencies fight release of the documents. Eight local police unions, not including the association representing sheriff's deputies, filed suit because they said the law that went into effect Jan. 1 doesn't clearly apply to misconduct and use-of-force cases before 2019.

KPBS and other local news outlets filed a motion to intervene in that case. A judge Friday approved the request, giving the media coalition a chance to argue in favor of releasing the records. The judge is expected to decide whether departments must turn over pre-2019 documents at a March 1 hearing.

In a separate matter, KPBS is suing the Sheriff's Department for access to records that show how long the agency took to respond to citizen complaints.

After it was first reported by a San Diego Union Tribune journalist, the San Diego County Sheriff confirmed to KPBS he will not charge to produce records newly made available under a controversial state law.

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Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include quotes from a KPBS attorney, and to expand upon KPBS’ legal actions regarding access to public records.

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