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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Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes is moving much slower than many other law enforcement agencies across California to release police misconduct records, made available to the general public under a state law, SB 1421, that went into effect on Jan 1.

News publishers across the state entered into an unprecedented partnership earlier this year to review police misconduct records and cover the details after going to court in several counties, successfully opposing deputy union efforts to cover up misconduct records.

Here in Orange County, Voice of OC led a media coalition including the LA Times and Southern California Public Radio, working in court to check an intense deputy union effort to destroy such police misconduct records.

The legal fight, which we won, took great expense, time and effort.

During our court proceedings, I distinctly remember County of Orange attorneys assuring Judge Nathan Scott that the county had a robust effort over at the Sheriff’s Department gathering relevant SB 1421 misconduct records.

And even though we won in court, it seems the battle for the public’s right-to-know is now being lost, as is so often the case, in the budget.

Note that we won our case in February.

Yet so far, Sheriff Barnes hasn’t released one misconduct record.

Not one.

Turns out, that robust County of Orange effort is essentially one staffer, the Public Records Unit manager at the Sheriff’s Department and one County Counsel.

These folks are facing the Super Bowl of Public Records requests.

They have tons of records to review for potential redactions before public release.

And Don Barnes has fielded a tiny team.

That kind of approach, especially after what county officials represented to Judge Scott, hardly seems fair to the OC Sheriff staff or to the public.

Given the current staff on public records, it could be years before the Sheriff’s Department is able to respond to the more than two dozen – and building – requests to review misconduct records.

That pace is way behind a slew of police agencies across that we have monitored as part of the SB1421 media collective, with many already beginning the process of releasing police misconduct records.

This slacker pace is also noteworthy from a Sheriff who was elected, in large part, due to a huge independent campaign mail effort by the OC Deputy Sheriff’s union, with the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriff’s spending more than $600,000 on an independent mail outreach campaign that benefitted Barnes, according to official campaign disclosures.

I reached out to Barnes to get a sense of why his budget priorities are so bad when it comes to funding the release of public records.

He never called back.

His really friendly new media staffer was kind enough to email me back a general statement.

“The Orange County Sheriff’s Department has been working continuously to compile and make legally required redactions to records and will release them when completed.”

Sheriff Barnes is clearly avoiding questions on the issue.

Keep in mind that Barnes recently requested more than $83 million in supplemental appropriations this fiscal year (ie: extra money for his department).

And while there is money for a gold-plated media outreach operation, there’s nothing extra – not a penny even for some temp workers overtime to help with the massive amount of copying and records management required for the mass of public information requests coming on SB 1421 issues.

This is easily the kind of challenge that is surmountable and temporary.

A well-assembled team of professional staff, clerical workers and county counsels should be put together to delve into this. It’s a temporary challenge that will pass once all relevant records are located.

Indeed, county officials can easily figure out where every relevant record is likely located – places like Internal Affairs along with the SAFE and Homicide Divisions, and figure out what the potential issues regarding legal redactions could be.

Why endanger the legitimate privacy rights of Deputy Sheriffs?

An overwhelmed and overtaxed staff is likely to make mistakes in a chaotic release process that is sure to wear them down.

Yet that’s exactly the situation Barnes has created here.

As we proved in our fierce legal fight to stop the Sheriff Deputies union effort to hide misconduct records – aided by their campaign-purchased, political surrogates on the County Board of Supervisors (which silenced County Counsel on the issue) and now Barnes, who quashes release by keeping a tiny staff on a huge challenge – we aren’t going anywhere.

Now, the deputies union has been able to quash release of misconduct records here in Orange County since January when the new state law, SB 1421, went into effect – a pretty good return on nearly a million in campaign contributions to county politicians.

So far, the public has only had the media on its side.

Why does this matter?

Putting aside the moral aspects of understanding the horrors that have reigned down upon those unfortunate Orange County residents that have seen the dark side of public safety, it’s important that policy makers and elected officials understand the risk management side of the equation for taxpayers and the potential for continued future harm of residents on such incidents.

In addition, just like firefighters conducting an after-action report, it’s important for policy makers and elected officials to understand public safety problems in order to propose fixes and really oversee arguably the largest budget priority of the county’s $6 billion budget.

Now, just by reviewing a few public documents regarding risk management payouts, we were able to identify about 30 legal cases since 2010 that have already cost Orange County taxpayers more than $13.5 million in payouts to residents negatively impacted by mistakes at the Sheriff’s Department.

Those payouts are connected to instances of improper use of force on residents, wrongful department firings, rape and sexual molestation, racial discrimination, wrongful deaths and civil rights violations.

Since 2000, taxpayers paid out more than $48 million, covering for mistakes in more than 900 legal cases against the Sheriff’s Department.

And if you go back to 1990, total payouts on Sheriff Department mistakes swell to $92 million, spanning 2,600 horrific tales.

Orange County supervisors have never questioned those payouts in public, which amounts to a total phoning-in their oversight responsibilities over the Sheriff’s Department.

Considering the costs for taxpayers and residents, the implications of this kind of laziness is staggering and scary.

Given those implications and the lack of political courage to question law enforcement in Orange County by politicians and taxpayer-funded institutions like the County Office of Independent Review, Voice of OC will continue to stand up and look into these cases, applying the new state law, SB 1421, to better understand what kind of abuses of authority or mistakes have occurred in the past, what the impact has been on residents and taxpayers and what reforms have occurred as a result of investigations.

We owe that to our community, especially to the overwhelming majority of Sheriff Deputies, people who perform their duties to the highest levels of public service and themselves expect the highest in terms of applying accountability in a fair and firm manner.

We won’t be afraid to stand up as journalists and do our job.

Our democracy depends on it.

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