A judge has ruled in favor of the Long Beach Post and other news outlets in their effort to stop the Downey Police Officer’s Association from forcing the destruction of old police discipline records to prevent public disclosure under a new state law.
California once kept police discipline records under tight seal. But as of Jan. 1, a landmark police transparency law called SB 1421 now mandates disclosure of certain police discipline records, including when an officer was dishonest or sexually assaulted a member of the public. It also requires police to turn over records about serious uses of force.
The law has prompted lawsuits from police unions across the state seeking to block disclosure, although they’ve been mostly batted away by judges.
In Downey, the police union sued the city to prevent disclosure, arguing that officers will “suffer irreparable harm” in having personnel records released to the public. The union also went a step further and asked a judge to force the city to destroy discipline records that are more than five years old, which is how long Downey mandates they be kept.
The Post, Los Angeles Times and Southern California Public Radio intervened in the lawsuit, arguing the documents are public record under the new law.
On May 14, Norwalk Superior Court Judge Kristin S. Escalante ruled in favor of the city of Downey and the news outlets, stating that the police union failed to show why its records should be exempt from state law.
A temporary restraining order that Judge Lori Ann Fournier had previously issued, preventing the city from disclosing the records until the case could be heard, expired on Wednesday, meaning Downey is now free to release documents to the public.
“It is alarming that unions throughout the state, including Downey Police Officer’s Association, have tried to prevent the disclosure of records relating to misconduct and serious uses of force. We are glad that the court saw this effort for what it was and hope the city will immediately produce these important records,” said attorney Kelly Aviles, who provided lead counsel to the three intervening media organizations, including the Post.
While some law enforcement agencies have already started producing documents in response to SB 1421, others have yet to produce records.
The Long Beach Police Department has said it will produce its documents but is struggling under the large volume of records requests.