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Voice of OC today joins nearly three dozen newsrooms across California – including outlets like the Los Angeles Times, the Orange County Register and Southern California Public Radio – that have forged a collaborative to report about police misconduct files that recently became available for public review under California’s new police transparency law, SB 1421.
The law makes public internal police records from shootings and other significant force by officers along with records from investigations that found cops lied or committed sexual assault while on duty.
Our hope as publishers, editors and reporters is that this unprecedented cooperation between 33 of California’s newsrooms will shine a light on police misconduct and use of force.
In a rare move, all these newsrooms have agreed to set aside competition and work collaboratively given the public service this reporting will provide.
Here in Orange County, our collaboration already logged a big win in court – after we led an effort with the legal teams from the LA Times and Southern California Public Radio that stopped the Association for Orange County Deputy Sheriffs in their court bid to seal all these types of misconduct records from public disclosure.
The best argument that I’ve heard so far about why such sensitive types of records should be in the public eye came from Orange County Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott – who rejected every legal argument put forth by the deputy sheriff’s union on why police misconduct records should remain secret.
“Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy,” wrote Scott in his ruling, quoting landmark court decisions that, “Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process.”
Scott concluded his ruling noting that, “there is a strong public policy in assessing how our public servants handle serious misconduct allegations.”
Since the start of 2019, the news consortium has already issued more than 1,000 public records requests to 675 agencies across all 58 California counties and to 29 state and 8 regional agencies.
Here in Orange County, Voice of OC went to court to be able to examine records about some of the most high-profile law enforcement scandals in the county including the illegal use of jailhouse informants and the controversial escape from the Men’s Central Jail.
The central question in these cases is what mistakes were made and who was held accountable?
Judge Scott kept a temporary restraining order in place that expired last week regarding the release of misconduct records. Scott extended the records block to ostensibly allow the AOCDS enough time to mount an appeal. Yet earlier this month, the deputy union decided to drop its effort to keep these records secret.
Thus, we expect the County of Orange to start producing records soon.
Meanwhile, the first direct political casualty from the SB 1421 fallout could be Orange County County Counsel Leon Page. Orange County supervisors have targeted Page for alerting the media and members of the public that their public records requests would be blocked by the AOCDS court action, a move that triggered media opposition to the deputy union action.
Much as he had done in the past – such as with deputy salary negotiation documents that were released to Republican activists – Page argued that SB 1421 allowed a series of police misconduct records to be released upon request by the public.
Yet that position drew the immediate ire of Supervisor Andrew Do – who directly benefited during a super tight 2016 reelection campaign from a six figure independent mail campaign effort funded by AOCDS.
Today, Orange County Supervisors have switched out Page as the spokesman on legal matters for the County Public Information Officer.
For now, that should tell the public volumes about where they stand on police secrecy.