Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, uncovered the truths across Southern California governments for more than two decades and reported on Congress and Latin America.

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The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS) wants to walk away from its controversial lawsuit against the County of Orange, seeking to prevent the public release of deputy misconduct records.

The AOCDS filed a request to dismiss its lawsuit late Friday, a day after OC Superior Court Judge Nathan Scott ruled against all of the deputy union’s court arguments seeking to halt local implementation of a new state law, SB 1421, which allows the public to review select misconduct records about use of force incidents, sexual assaults on members of the public or lying while on duty.

A media coalition, led by Voice of OC and including the Los Angeles Times and Southern California Public Radio, successfully went to court last month to oppose the deputy union effort.

Sadly, Orange County supervisors opted not to defend the public right’s to know – publicly orchestrating a stand down of County Counsel staff attorneys, who conducted an aggressive and effective initial defense in court against the deputy union effort seeking to block the public release of misconduct records.

County Supervisor Andrew Do, who received critical independent campaign mail from the deputies union in his 2016 re-election bid, led public arguments from the supervisors’ public dais – along with Supervisors’ Chairwoman Lisa Bartlett – which ultimately forced county attorneys onto the sidelines.

In this case, it was up to the media to stand up and defend the public’s right to know.

County elected officials, like Do and Bartlett, supported efforts to protect the privacy of deputies who sexually assaulted members of the public, lied while on duty or made questionable decisions about the use of force.

They led our board of supervisors to assist the efforts of deputy union leaders, whose attorneys argued publicly in court that public documents related to this kind of misconduct – in any case before Jan 1, 2019 – should be kept private because deputies had expectations of privacy when such misconduct occurred.

It now appears the media coalition has won an early, resounding and complete victory against that concept.

We are extremely proud to have defended our democracy successfully – despite the financial risks and costs we undertook as a small nonprofit to protect a cornerstone concept – our ability to see raw government documents and decide for ourselves as free people about what is going on.

Judge Scott eloquently noted the bedrock importance of protecting our right to know, especially over an agency like law enforcement, which carries so much power over people’s lives.

“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 astutely concluded his ruling noting that, “there is a strong public policy in assessing how our public servants handle serious misconduct allegations.”

Indeed, if nothing else this court case has allowed all of Orange County, to witness a sobering, embarrassingly-low standard of openness from our top leaders – watching the deputy’s union leadership scramble to block the public release of misconduct records and finding a willing partner in our board of supervisors.

Yet perhaps we shouldn’t find that so surprising.

These are the same politicians that witnessed criminals crawl out of the Men’s Central Jail in 2016 and asked no public questions, nor pressed to hold anyone publicly accountable.

They haven’t asked any public questions or pressed for any investigation into the illegal use of jailhouse snitches, which has complicated so many criminal prosecutions in recent years and impacted the last election for DA.

In fact, quite the opposite…

Do recently publicly criticized newly-elected District Attorney Todd Spitzer for commenting on the snitch scandal, because Spitzer said he would be willing to admit to any misdeeds of the previous DA to federal officials investigating the matter in exchange for a deal.

Even when the same OC deputies union filed suit against their own department – alleging widespread mismanagement in court documents, supervisors, again, asked nothing publicly.

This group rarely peeks under the hood, and never asks tough questions publicly,  especially not about sticky law enforcement management details, like spikes in overtime spending, workers’ compensation claims, equipment costs or pension obligations.

What does apparently get these folks excited is protecting the privacy of misconduct.

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