Council approves police contract that includes notifying officers of public records requests

The Long Beach City Council has approved a contract with the city’s police union that includes controversial language that requires notifying officers of certain public records requests and, when possible, telling them who is requesting the information.

Under the agreement Long Beach Police Department officers will receive incremental pay raises ranging from 2.5% to 4% between 2019 and April 2022 and certain skill pay. Qualifying officers will also get 30 consecutive days of paid parental leave and receive an additional yet-to-be-determined paid holiday in 2021.

However, controversy arose from one clause in the agreement that some critics said put the city at odds with the spirit of a new state law that requires local police departments to release records like body camera footage and other documents relating to officer dishonesty or investigations into police shootings.

LBPD officers could be warned when someone wants public records about them

A section of the new contract outlines the process in which police officers would be notified and given “at least five days” to view redacted records about themselves before they’re released. In general, they’d also be given the name of the person who requested the documents.

Long Beach Police Officers Association President Jim Foster praised the deal for its efforts to reform the structure of police officer pensions and denounced the press coverage of the public records act portion of the deal. He cited an “irresponsible press” for “hijacking” the conversation surrounding the deal being reached.

Members of the public lined up to speak, saying the provision could have a potentially chilling effect on those wanting to request records in the future for fear of the officers involved retaliating against them. Public records requests and whoever makes them are themselves presumed to be public record, but the contract would go a step further by requiring names be proactively giving to officers whenever possible.

“Releasing names of those requesting public records will have an effect of suppressing public involvement in accountability,” said Naida Tushnet. “It doesn’t have to be active suppression; it will have a chilling effect that people will know that their names have been released.

“For a positive city environment, we need accountability and openness. No one should fear, even if you say it isn’t going to happen, any reprisal when they act to ensure true public safety.”

Aliyah Shaikh said the provision disincentives constituents from requesting public records about the police department and that the most vulnerable members of the community would likely suffer the most. She added the department’s history with secrecy should be reason enough to not grant them access to requestors’ identifications.

“I don’t understand why LBPD would seemingly be rewarded with such access when they’ve already showed contempt for the public’s ability to hold them accountable by using TigerText,” Shaikh said. “I think that’s enough of a misconduct. It’s horrifying for democracy, if that is something that you care about.”

She was referencing a messaging app that was revealed to have been used by the department for years in a September 2018 report by Al Jazeera. The app deleted correspondences between officers after a set period of time, raising cries from some critics that evidence was being destroyed.

App that allows Long Beach police messages to disappear sparks legal furor

Acting City Manager Tom Modica assured the council and the public that any misuse of the advanced warning by officers would not be tolerated and could possibly be criminal in nature. He noted that there are six other agencies in the state that have similar early warning policies including the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the San Francisco Police Department.

Modica did say that the city manager’s office has a function on its website for anonymous public records requests and that, while the police department’s portal does not have the same function enabled, it could easily be activated.

Members of the council pressed for the city’s public records request portals to be simplified and made more clear as to how anonymous requests could be submitted, a request that was accepted by city staff as the language of the agreement moves forward.

The contract was approved by a 7-1 vote, with Councilwoman Jeannine Pearce representing the lone “no” vote.

Pearce took issue with the idea that the police department would have its own policy on public records while the rest of the city would be operating under different rules. She brought up an instance in September 2017 when a trove of emails between her and her former chief of staff, whom she was romantically involved with, were released to the public with little notice given to her.

“I got notice of the package five minutes before it went to the press,” Pearce said. “Yes, I’m an elected and I’m under different scrutiny, but I want to know, it seems like PRAs to me are a procedural policy that adheres to the entire city, not one department and I would hate to create a process for one department that’s not fair to the entire city.”

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.