Police Transparency Handbook – FAQ

Police Transparency Handbook


Frequently Asked Questions

Obtaining law enforcement misconduct and use-of-force records and recordings in California

What types of law enforcement personnel and investigatory records are open to the public in California?

California law requires agencies to release eight categories of records about officer conduct:
  • 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, regardless of whether the force was considered justified;
  • Sexual assault: Records related to a sustained finding 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;
  • Official dishonesty: Records relating to a sustained finding of an officer’s acts of dishonesty during the investigation, reporting, or prosecution of crime or police misconduct;
  • Unreasonable or excessive force: Records related to a sustained finding involving a complaint that alleges unreasonable or excessive force;
  • Failure to intervene: Records related to a sustained finding that an officer failed to intervene against another officer using force that is clearly unreasonable or excessive;
  • Prejudice or discrimination: Records relating to a sustained finding that an officer engaged in conduct involving prejudice or discrimination; and
  • Unlawful arrest or search: Records relating to a sustained finding that a peace officer made an unlawful arrest or conducted an unlawful search. Note that this particular provision only applies to “peace officers,” unlike other provisions that apply to both “peace” and “custodial” officers. The difference between “peace” and “custodial” officers is discussed in detail in the Legal Guide.

What is a “sustained finding”?

A “sustained finding” means a final determination by an investigating agency, commission, board, hearing officer, or arbitrator, as applicable, following an investigation and opportunity for an administrative appeal, that the actions of the peace officer or custodial officer were found to violate law or department policy.

A “sustained finding” is not a condition of disclosing records related to discharge of a firearm at a person or use of force resulting in death or great bodily injury. Those records must be disclosed regardless of whether the shooting or force was found justified or investigated at all.

How do I request law enforcement 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, for example, a civilian oversight agency or board. 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. Disciplinary records about other types of conduct and other types of investigative files remain secret.

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, although you may want to provide an anonymous email address or phone number in case the agency needs to send copies of requested records, collect appropriate fees, advise you of the status of the request, or provide assistance regarding its scope.

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. Records subject to disclosure under Penal Code section 832.7(b) – the police transparency provisions introduced by SB 1421 and SB 16 – must be disclosed within 45 days of the date of the request unless a delay is authorized by the statute when an investigation or criminal case is open. “Critical incident” recordings – body cam and other video and audio recordings of police shootings – subject to disclosure under Government Code section 7923.625 – are not necessarily subject to the same 45-day deadline.

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

The name of an officer in an officer-involved shooting generally must be disclosed immediately unless there is a credible threat to officer safety. Generalized threats do not suffice. Rather, the agency must show there is “a specific, articulable, and particularized reason to believe that disclosure of the [name] would pose a significant danger to the physical safety” of a specific officer.

Can I access officer body camera 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 Guide. 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 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 7923.625. (See Section II of our Legal Guide.)

I want to know if a particular officer has ever been punished for excessive use of force or failing to prevent excessive force; sexual assault; prejudice or discrimination; unlawful arrest or search; 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 any such misconduct. You may also ask other agencies, such as the district attorney’s office or the California Department of Justice, for records about officials employed by other agencies.

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 whistleblowers, complainants, victims, 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 or previously employed the officer, usually by sending an email or submitting it online through a dedicated web page. However, the employing agency, such as a police department or sheriff’s office, may not be the only place you may wish to contact. You are also entitled to records maintained or created by any outside agency, such as a prosecutor’s office or other law enforcement 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. Note that the CPRA requires agencies to assist requesters in identifying the records they seek, including by explaining the agency’s recordkeeping systems and ways in which a request can be modified.

What records can I access about a police chief or sheriff?

All California sheriffs and police chiefs are subject to the CPRA. Although an elected sheriff may be a “peace officer,” records about the sheriff’s own conduct are not protected by the strict privacy laws that apply to other officers, because the county is not deemed the sheriff’s “employing agency.” Records about the conduct of police chiefs, however, may not be subject to that rule, because police chief are typically appointed employees of cities, as opposed to elected county sheriffs.

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, familiarize yourself with it. However, some police records are private by state statute and are not disclosable, regardless of a local ordinance.

What can I do if an agency denies my request?

You may want to start a dialogue, challenging the reason for the denial. For instance, you may disagree with the reasons an agency gives for withholding the records, and you may want to make arguments, such as if you know a record exists or why you think it meets the definitions about what records are disclosable. This type of negotiation, which we recommend you do or memorialize in writing, can lead agencies to change their determinations. Short of litigation, there is no formal administrative 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. Beyond such negotiations, typically the only way to enforce the CPRA is to file a lawsuit in Superior Court.

What can I do if an agency says it will take months to respond or doesn’t respond at all?

There are steps you can take to advocate for yourself. Mark the agency’s deadline to respond on your calendar. If the agency has not responded by that date, follow up immediately to politely demand that they do so, and keep following up until they comply. If an agency gives you an estimate that it may take an extended period of time to respond or produce records, you may point them to the language in SB 16 that says responsive covered records must be produced no later than 45 days from the date of request for disclosure, unless delay is authorized by other provisions of the statue.

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 January 2023