by Tim Cushing
California has long protected police officers from accountability. Most police misconduct records are impossible to obtain via public records requests. The restrictions covering these personnel files even prevent defense attorneys and prosecutors from accessing them, allowing cops with lousy track records for telling the truth present testimony as if they've never committed a misdeed or told a lie.
After years of legislative surrender to police union pressure and an overall deference to all things law enforcement, this year's model finally managed to get a records reform bill to land on the governor's desk. The new law goes into effect January 1, 2019, opening up access to a number of records Californians have never seen.
Under SB-1421, law enforcement agencies are required to provide public access to records related to use of force, sexual assault complaints, and dishonesty in investigations and reporting of a crime.
Faced with impending accountability, police departments are readying themselves for mass releases of previously withheld data. Oh, wait. The opposite of that.
Inglewood City Council approved the destruction of records that have been in the police department’s possession — more than 100 cases — longer than required by law. The city staff report and council resolution describing the action makes no mention of the new police transparency law. Instead it says the affected records are “obsolete, occupy valuable space, and are of no further use to the police department.” It added the traditional method of destroying such records is to shred them.
Yes, it's merely a coincidence that records the Inglewood PD has held onto for years -- "longer than required by law" -- are being destroyed days before the new transparency law goes into effect. It's all so innocent and devoid of subterfuge the city council did it in secret with zero public notice or input.
No video or audio of the Dec. 11 council action is available on the city’s website and neither are meeting minutes or any record of the decision.
It affects far more than records the PD has retained for years. The authorization from the Inglewood council will allow the PD to destroy all Internal Affairs investigations from 2004-2012 and all Use of Force reports from 2015-2016.
The mayor continues to argue this is all routine city business and has nothing to do with the mandatory transparency going into effect January 1.
“It’s actually quite routine for us to do records destruction,” [Mayor James T. Butts Jr.] told ABC 7’s Eyewitness News. “The Finance Department, the Police Department and other entities — whenever they want to destroy records that exceed a time limit — they submit a staff report to the City Council and the City Council approves or disapproves the records destruction.”
No doubt this statement is true. But this move, with this timing, does nothing to restore years of shattered trust. The Inglewood PD has stonewalled the public for two years, refusing to release info about the killing of two residents by police officers who encountered them passed out in a parked vehicle. The PD was also investigated by the DOJ, which found officers routinely deployed excessive force and were overseen by department management that often cleared officers of wrongdoing after little or no investigation.
The PD's decision to destroy records it has held onto for years only days before they may have become publicly-accessible only further adds to the "bunker mentality" perception noted in the DOJ's investigation. The PD wishes to remain a closed shop despite the new law. This move -- and the city's approval -- lets residents know the city isn't interested in accountability or transparency, no matter what the new law says.
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