Long Beach waits on revealing police misconduct files despite new transparency law

Long Beach has decided to follow the lead of California’s top law enforcement official in refusing to release past records of police misconduct despite a new law intended to make the files public.

Until now, the city had been working to provide previously confidential files about police discipline and use-of-force investigations in response to public records requests filed by the Long Beach Post and other news organizations.

But in a Feb. 11 letter, attorneys for the city said they would not release any records that pre-date the new transparency law until courts have settled whether it applies retroactively.

The city made that decision because “the public interest in accessing these records is clearly outweighed by the public’s interest in protecting privacy rights,” the letter said in part.

The new law, SB 1421, went into effect Jan. 1. It rolled back some of California’s strict privacy rules for police that protected officers even if they’d been disciplined on the job.

Under the bill, police departments must disclose details about serious uses of force and misconduct by officers involving dishonesty or sexual assault on members of the public.

But since Jan. 1, some police unions and departments across the state have gone to court, arguing SB 1421 should only apply to cases that happened after the law went into effect.

Courts have split on the topic, with some ordering that the records be released and others restricting access at least temporarily. There’s currently more than a dozen cases working their way through the court system, according to The Mercury News.

Earlier this month, State Attorney General Xavier Becerra said he would not release misconduct files until the matter of retroactivity is decided. Long Beach relied on that decision in its letter to the Long Beach Post.

“The city is following the Attorney General’s direction and will not disclose any records related to incidents that pre-date January 1, 2019, at this time,” it said in part.

Unlike other jurisdictions, the Long Beach police union hasn’t gone to court trying to block the release of past records. However, it supports the city’s decision to hold off because it would be impossible to claw back any information that was disclosed prematurely, Long Beach Police Officers Association President Jim Foster said Tuesday.

The legal battle over SB 1421 is likely just beginning.

On Thursday, the First Amendment Coalition announced it was suing Becerra.

“As the highest law enforcement officer in the state, the Attorney General has an obligation to not only comply with the California Public Records Act, but to send the right message about transparency to police departments across the state,” said David Snyder, the executive director of the group, which advocates for freedom of speech and government transparency. “Unfortunately, the Attorney General has done neither. By denying public access to these crucial files, he has given a green light to other departments to disregard the new law.”

After Becerra’s decision, state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, who authored SB 1421, said the law does apply retroactively.

“Unless the state Supreme Court issues an injunction, which it has chosen not to do, SB 1421 is the law and covers pre-2019 records as the Legislature intended,” she said in a statement on Twitter. “The only agencies that can legitimately hold records are those agencies in the few counties where lower courts have issued a stay.”

Some police agencies, including the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office and police departments in San Bernardino and Santa Barbara have already begun turning over files, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Other departments in the Long Beach area, including Signal Hill and Downey, told the Post they’re also waiting to disclose records because of pending legal challenges.

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Jeremiah Dobruck is the breaking news editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his journalism career in 2007 as an intern at Palos Verdes Peninsula News and has worked for The Forum Newsgroup in New York City, the Daily Pilot and the Press-Telegram. He lives in Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and their two young children.
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