Police Transparency Guide FAQ

Police Transparency Guide

FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

Obtaining Police Misconduct And Use-Of-Force Records And Recordings In California

What types of police personnel records are open to the public?

A 2019 California law known as Senate Bill 1421 requires police agencies to release four categories of police personnel records:
    • Officer-involved shootings: Records related to the discharge of a firearm by an officer, regardless of whether anyone was struck or whether the shooting was considered justified under department policy or the law;
    • Any use of force that caused great bodily injury or death;
    • Sexual assault: Records related to instances of sexual assault against a member of the public. “Sexual assault” is broadly defined to include propositioning a member of the public, or the commission of a sexual act, while on duty. Records of sexual assault allegations are available only when the employing agency has “sustained” those allegations; and
    • Official dishonesty: Records relating to an officer’s acts of dishonesty during the investigation, reporting, or prosecution of crime or police misconduct — only when an allegation was “sustained” by the employing agency or an oversight entity such as the state Attorney General. 

How do I request personnel records?

You can use our sample letter to generate a written request to submit to the police department, sheriff’s office, state attorney general’s office or other law enforcement agency that employs the officer in question or any other agency you think may have related records. While the law does not require a request for records to be submitted in writing, we recommend it. 

Can I see a police officer’s entire personnel file?

No, but you are entitled to records relating to the categories of misconduct listed above.

Who has a right to see these records?

Any member of the public can request records under the California Public Records Act. You do not need to be a journalist or lawyer, or even a resident of California.

Can I make my request anonymously?

Yes.

How long does an agency have to respond to a records request?

An agency must respond to a request within 10 calendar days. In unusual circumstances, it can give itself an extension of 14 calendar days. The agency’s response must include (a) whether it will or will not provide records and (b) if it is not going to provide records, the specific CPRA exemptions the agency believes allow it to withhold the records you seek.

Can an agency withhold the name of an officer involved in a shooting?

An agency must respond to a request within 10 calendar days. In unusual circumstances, it can give itself an extension of 14 calendar days. The agency’s response must include (a) whether it will or will not provide records and (b) if it is not going to provide records, the specific CPRA exemptions the agency believes allow it to withhold the records you seek.

Can I access officer body cam or dash cam videos?

Yes, a 2019 law called Assembly Bill 748 requires police agencies to release recordings of “critical incidents,” as defined in that law. For a thorough discussion of what is accessible, see Section B of our Legal Compendium. You can use this sample request letter to seek recordings.

What does it cost to obtain police personnel records or videos?

Under the CPRA, government agencies generally can charge a requester only for the “direct cost of duplication,” so fees should be minimal. An agency may not charge a requester for the cost of reviewing or redacting records, including body cam or dash cam videos.

How quickly can I get officer body cam or dash cam videos?

The general rule is that agencies are required to release video or audio files just as they are required to release any records under the CPRA — “promptly.” However, an agency may delay the release of video or audio files for 45 days or longer if releasing the recordings would “substantially interfere with an active criminal or administrative investigation,” such as by endangering the safety of a witness or a confidential source. If this is the case, the agency must provide a written explanation of how they believe the release would “substantially interfere with” an active investigation.

Can an agency withhold information while an internal affairs or administrative investigation is pending?

In the case of records relating to officer-involved shootings and uses of force resulting in great bodily injury, if an agency initiates an administrative investigation, an agency may delay disclosing records for 180 days or until the agency determines whether the use of force or shooting did or did not violated agency policy (whichever is shorter). In any event, the agency may be obligated to release the audio/video recordings of the incident sooner than this under Government Code Section 6254(f)(4). (See Section B of our Legal Compendium.) For records relating to allegations of sexual assault or dishonesty, agencies must release records only after allegations are “sustained” during an investigation

I want to know if a particular officer has ever been punished for excessive use of force, sexual assault or lying. How would I go about finding out?

Submit a CPRA request to the officer’s employing agency, asking for any records including his/her name that involve accusations of excessive force, sexual assault or lying.

What kind of information can agencies lawfully withhold or redact?

Agencies can lawfully redact some personal information such as home addresses, telephone numbers or the identities of family members of officers. But they must release the names and work-related information of officers. Agencies can also redact information that would reveal the identities of complainants and witnesses, as well as confidential medical and financial information.

Where do I send my records request?

You make the request to the agency that employs the officer. However, an outside agency (such as the local district attorney’s office) may be involved in investigating the incident such as a police-involved shooting or allegation of misconduct. You are also entitled to records maintained or created by any outside agency

Do I have to know an officer’s name to make a request?

No. You can ask an agency for all records about any and all of its officers’ conduct that would be disclosable under the Public Records Act. However, if you are seeking information about a specific officer, it helps to have the name. It will also help speed the process of getting records if you narrow your request as much as possible by requesting certain date ranges or certain types of misconduct. Note that the CPRA requires agencies to assist requesters to identify the records they seek, including by explaining the agency’s recordkeeping systems and ways in which a request can be modified to better target the information the requester wants.

Is the sheriff or police chief subject to the public records act?

Yes, all California sheriffs and police chiefs are subject to the CPRA.

Are campus police subject to California’s open-records laws?

If they are employed by a government agency, yes. Private security officers may not be subject to the CPRA, depending on how and whether they are supervised by government agencies.

Are there laws other than the CPRA that might help me obtain police records?

Yes. Some California cities have local Sunshine Ordinances that create additional rights of access and enforcement mechanisms. If an officer is employed by an agency in a city with a strong Sunshine Ordinance, familiarizing yourself with it and citing it in your request letter can be useful.

What if an agency denies my request, or if it fails to respond within the required time?

The only way to enforce the CPRA is to file a lawsuit. But there are steps you can take to advocate for yourself, short of that. Mark the agency’s deadline to respond on your calendar. If the agency has not responded by that date, follow up immediately to demand that they do so, and keep following up until they comply. If an agency denies your request for reasons that do not appear to comply with the law, tell them that and ask them to explain their withholding. There is no formal appeal process under California law, but it can be productive to explain to an agency why their response does not comply with the law and insist that they do. If you are a journalist, consider writing a story or editorial about transparency issues you encounter.  

This FAQ is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to constitute legal advice and does not form an attorney-client relationship.

Last updated September 2020