An update on accessing police misconduct and use-of-force records in California
For decades, California was one of the most secretive states about policing, concealing virtually all records about police misconduct. After sustained public outcry over police brutality and biased policing, the state began piercing this veil of secrecy.
Three laws that have taken effect since 2019 — Senate Bill 1421, Assembly Bill 748 and Senate Bill 16 — require the disclosure of a broad range of records relating to shootings, certain uses of force, and specified misconduct, along with video and audio recordings of “critical incidents” in which an officer shoots at a person or uses any force resulting in death or great bodily injury.
But these laws don’t enforce themselves. Throughout California, law enforcement agencies have continued to wage a campaign of obstruction and resistance by unjustifiably rejecting requests for records under the new laws.
The First Amendment Coalition is dedicated to enforcing the transparency and accountability promised by these laws. Recently, we sent two letters to law enforcement agencies demanding compliance with their duties of public disclosure. Both letters were sent to enforce public record requests made by Tasha Williamson, president of Exhaling Injustice.
First, we called on the San Diego Police Department to comply with AB 748 by releasing audio and video recordings of an officer’s shooting of a mentally ill woman, Rosa Calva, almost two years ago. Regardless of whether it was lawful to withhold the recordings previously, any justification for doing so has long since evaporated.
We are pleased to report that in response to our advocacy on behalf of Ms. Williamson, San Diego police have changed their position. The department “reassessed delaying disclosure and will promptly release the records once redactions are completed.”
In a second push for transparency, we called on the San Diego District Attorney’s Office to comply with SB 1421 and SB 16 by disclosing records related to criminal charges against several law enforcement officers. In refusing to disclose any records except complaints filed in court, the District Attorney improperly relied on the “investigatory files” exemption from disclosure. Although that exemption may apply to other records, SB 1421 and SB 16 specifically reject it for the records covered by those laws.
We will continue to demand compliance with open-government laws. We know there can be no accountability without transparency.
— David Loy
First Amendment Coalition
Use our open-government resources:
- Bookmark our Police Transparency Guide
- Bookmark our primer on the California Public Records Act
- Use our free Legal Hotline