A Downey police car. Photo courtesy Downey police.
Photo courtesy Downey police.

A judge on Thursday temporarily blocked the release of old Downey police discipline records while she evaluates whether they should be destroyed at the request of the officers’ union.

“I believe that a temporary restraining order is appropriate at this point,” Norwalk Superior Court Judge Lori Ann Fournier said in a brief hearing where media organizations including the Los Angeles Times and Southern California Public Radio tried to intervene and argue the documents are public record under a new police transparency law.

Downey was preparing to release the files under the new law, Senate Bill 1421, when the Downey Police Officers’ Association sued the city late last month.

Before the files could be released, the union asked a judge to force the city to destroy any police discipline records that are more than five years old because that’s how long Downey’s record-keeping policies say they should be kept.

Downey police union sues to destroy records that could be revealed under new transparency law

“It’s kind of a startling development in my mind, the lengths that they’ll go to to try to prevent the public from accessing this information,” said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California News Publishers Association, which advocated for SB 1421.

Thursday’s court date was an emergency hearing requested by the union to keep the city from turning over any old documents in response to public records requests from the Long Beach Post and other organizations.

Without immediate intervention from a judge, Downey’s officers “will suffer irreparable harm” the union’s attorneys argued.

The officers’ privacy rights outweigh any immediate need to disclose the files because, “once made public, it is unlikely that the disclosed information could ever be considered confidential again,” the union’s lawyers wrote in their emergency motion.

The records Downey officers want to destroy could be made public for the first time under SB 1421. As of Jan. 1, the law mandated 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.

Police unions across the state have tried to block disclosure of records that predate the law, arguing it isn’t explicitly retroactive. They’ve often sought emergency court orders to that effect.

Some county-level courts, however, have begun ruling that they must disclose the old files, and on Wednesday, the state supreme court declined to take up an appeal from the union representing Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies trying to block one such ruling.

Lawyers who’ve litigated SB 1421 cases said Downey’s union was the first to argue that a judge should order a city to destroy old records.

Other police departments, including Long Beach, are refusing to release pre-2019 records while court cases are still pending across the state.

Fournier set a more in-depth hearing for the Downey case later this month.

Jeremiah Dobruck is managing editor of the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @jeremiahdobruck on Twitter.