A&A: Can I Gain Access to Police Reports Regarding My Brother’s Death?

Q:  I am trying to get information regarding my brother’s death at the hands of county sheriffs, but so far have not been able to get records because the case is still under investigation. Am I entitled to the records and how would I request footage of the incident?

A:  While California’s Public Records Act provides that public records generally must be disclosed upon request, there are numerous exemptions within the Act, including one for the investigatory files of law enforcement agencies.  Gov’t Code section 6254(f); Copley Press, Inc. v. Superior Court, 39 Cal. 4th 1272.  This exemption permits police and other agencies to withhold investigatory records from the public, even after the investigation is over and even if no one is charged or arrested.  Williams v. Superior Court, 5 Cal. 4th 337, 361-362 (1993); Rivero v. Superior Court, 54 Cal. App. 4th 1048, 1051-52 (1997).  This provision is particularly troubling with respect to police shootings, since the public is never given the benefit of reviewing any internal investigation that may have been conducted.  However, this exemption is not absolute, and a police department may, at its discretion, decide to release investigatory records upon request.  You might want to press the sheriff’s office to release the video footage, together with any findings surrounding this shooting, in the spirit of transparency and public trust.

There is currently a bill pending in the state Senate that would require disclosure of records relating to investigations of serious police misconduct, including officer-involved shootings.  If you are so compelled, you might consider sharing your story with state legislators about your experience in searching for answers in the hope that our lawmakers will make it easier to review investigatory records related to police shootings.  You can read more about SB 1421 on the FAC’s website here.

And finally, should there be any civil litigation surrounding the death, police investigatory records, including the video footage, would presumptively be discoverable by the plaintiff.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.  No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.

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