SDPD, Sheriff Still Owe Public Hundreds Of Police Shooting And Use Of Force Records
The 2016 Holiday Bowl did not end well for Jason Walker. During the game, he got into a shoving match with a man sitting behind him, which Walker says the other man started. Things got worse for him when officers from the San Diego Police Department showed up.
“I was backing up, I had my hands in the air, and then they shot me with a taser,” Walker said. “A woman yelled, 'you don’t need to taser him' as I was shot, but then they just threw some handcuffs on me and dragged me out of the stadium.”
His charges of battery on a police officer were dismissed, but Walker had to spend $9,500 on a lawyer. He then sued the city and eventually agreed to a $1,000 settlement. But all these years later, Walker still hasn’t been able to see records of the SDPD’s internal affairs investigation into his case, even though state law says cases such as his should be made public.
The passage of Senate Bill 1421 in 2018 was hailed as a watershed moment for police accountability and government transparency in California. The law says police have to make public records of officer shootings and using force that caused great bodily injury, or lying or committing sexual assault.
It was met with immediate resistance from law enforcement unions. As a result, KPBS and other news organizations across the state had to sue to force the release of past records.
The news organizations won the case, but more than two years after the law was passed the records are still slow in coming. In June, KPBS published a series of stories and an interactive database revealing, among other things, that police have been more likely to shoot people of color and use less-lethal options on white people. But KPBS was only able to analyze a fraction of the available records because the SDPD and Sheriff's Department still haven’t finished their required disclosures.
SDPD and sheriff's officials claim to be releasing the records as fast as they can. But they say the process is very time consuming, with cases containing hundreds, if not thousands, of pages of records that must be read and redacted before being released.
However, that explanation is not adequate, said state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), who authored SB 1421. And now she’s introducing a new bill, SB 16, that would both increase the records required to be made public and allow for fines to be imposed on departments that do not release records quickly enough.
“SB 1421 says you must give a timely response to records requests, but some agencies decided a timely response is a year or two years later,” Skinner said. “SB 16 says you must respond by X date, or the requestor can take you to court and get fees.”
The bill would give agencies 45 days to release police records. Then, 30 days after that deadline, agencies would begin being fined $1,000 a day for every day that records are not released. It overwhelmingly passed the state Assembly last summer but didn’t make it to the Senate before the deadline. Skinner has reintroduced the bill this year and expects it to pass.
If the law passes it would also apply to SB 1421 records that have not yet been released, which could be a problem for local agencies. So far, the police department has released records, audio and video recordings from just 82 incidents. Hundreds more are still under wraps.
“In 2019, it was estimated that 200 to 300 records would need to be reviewed related to SB 1421,” said San Diego Police Capt. Jeff Jordon, who oversees the release of public records. “In all likelihood, that number may grow to over 600 records. For instance, SDPD has identified 472 officer-involved shootings going back to 1977, and a handful going back over 100 years.”
It’s taking the department a long time to produce these records because there are so many things that need to be redacted, and, partly, because of COVID-19, Jordon said.
“Employees are not able to work remotely as files cannot leave police facilities,” he said. Staff were out of work at times this year due to COVID-19 or were reassigned to other departments for periods of time. There are four officers, two sergeants and two civilians who work on producing the records.
“However, the biggest challenges are related to identifying and redacting responsive documents, which can be extensive periods of time, especially given the size of some of these files,” Jordon said. “Additionally, as SDPD works back in time, many of the files are not in a digital format and are recorded on technologies no longer in use, such as VCR tapes. This makes producing records much harder and more time-consuming.”
The Sheriff’s Department has 88 past cases whose records, video and audio have not been released. That number will likely change as more incidents happen, said Lt. Ricardo Lopez, a department spokesman.
“Redaction is a time-consuming process that requires precision in order to properly comply with the law,” Lopez said. “The average size of a deputy-involved shooting release is 1,000-2,000 pages, including reports and photographs, and 10-30 hours of audio and video.”
He said in 2019, the Sheriff's Department hired two professional audio/visual employees to work full time on redacting the video files, but cases since the beginning of 2017 could involve body-worn cameras, which means there is more video to go through.
The police agencies’ arguments miss the point of SB 1421, which says public agencies owe transparency to the public, said Matthew Halgren, a First Amendment attorney at the Los Angeles-based Sheppard Mullin law firm.
“The purpose of public agencies is to serve the public, and one of the ways they do that is by letting the public know what they’re up to by letting the public view their records,” he said. “Instead of viewing this as some special requirement that has been imposed on them, if they view it as part of their mission and something they need to devote their resources to, just like they would any other program, maybe that will help them prioritize this in the way that it should be.”
Clock Is Ticking
Halgren represented KPBS and other media outlets who intervened in a lawsuit filed by San Diego’s police union and other local law enforcement unions, which argued SB 1421 did not apply retroactively. The unions lost that case, and as part of the settlement agreement, the SDPD agreed to turn over all its records, video and audio from 2009 to 2019 by this June.
About whether San Diego will meet the terms of the settlement, Jordon would say only the department “believes it will be in substantial compliance of the settlement terms.”
The San Diego Sheriff’s Department doesn’t have the same hard deadline because it wasn’t part of the settlement. But, Halgren said, time is up. Under the California Public Records Act, records must be released within 10 days of when they are requested, with a possible 14-day extension.
“The media has not been unreasonable, but it's been two years now, and two years is longer than 24 days, so they should be wrapping this up,” Halgren said.
The local agencies are behind much of the rest of the state, but many larger police forces are also still working on releasing past records, according to Alex Emslie, a journalist with KQED and the California Reporting Project, which has requested records from more than 700 law enforcement agencies statewide. Across the state, about two-thirds of law enforcement agencies have completed responses to requests for SB 1421 records from 2014 to 2018, he said, while 225 agencies have not.
KPBS requested records from every agency in San Diego County, and most departments except San Diego police and sheriff are up to date. The Chula Vista Police Department also has records from three cases that happened after the law went into effect that has not yet been released.