Journalists and police accountability activists spent New Year’s Day testing out California’s new police transparency law with a flurry of public records requests. State Senator Nancy Skinner’s legislation opened up access to old documents regarding police shootings, uses of force causing death or injury and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying in bringing greater transparency behind the badge. Investigative reports, interview transcripts, photographic, audio and video evidence all became fair game–albeit with caveats–at the start of the year.
Naturally, the Weekly wanted to get its hands on all of that and filed a public records request last month for such records in four Anaheim police shooting incidents, including the back-to-back killings of Manuel Diaz and Joel Acevedo in 2012 that sparked downtown riots in the city.
Roadblocks to transparency have stifled efforts elsewhere. The Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs won an initial court victory last month blocking the release of old disciplinary records under the new law with another hearing set for next week. They’re opposed by a media coalition comprised of Voice of OC, Los Angeles Times and Southern California Public Radio.
Another means by which to undermine the new law is readily apparent in Santa Ana where a pro-police union city council could consider a request to destroy boxes of records that would otherwise be available to the public.
In Anaheim, no such stalling efforts by the Anaheim Police Association nor the city council are evident. Instead, the city asked a 14-day extension under the California Public Records Act before sending a Jan. 28 letter with a hefty price tag. They estimated the time and labor needed to review and “extract” otherwise exempt information from audio and video files would take 224 hours at $80 an hour.
“Please provide a deposit in the amount of $17,920 if you are interested in obtaining these records,” city attorney Robert Fabela’s letter states. “Please also note that this amount is an estimate only. If actual extraction costs are less than the estimate, the city will refund the appropriate portion of your deposit.”
Whew! That’s a relief–that is, if their estimate is off by more than $17,000.
But, if the costs exceed the estimate, the Weekly would have to fork out the extra feria.
The exempted information could include possible personal contacts, medical and financial records. Anaheim police didn’t adopt body-worn cameras until years after the Diaz and Acevedo killings. The two other officer-involved shootings occurred in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
Anaheim expects multiple law enforcement association challenges to the question of the law opening up old records to be resolved before producing the requested records. The Los Angeles Times obtained a one-page letter Sen. Skinner sent to the State Senate Rules Committee this week where she clarified that it was her intent for the law to be applicable to past records. Prior to Skinner’s bill becoming law, California law enforcement files enjoyed the strictest protections in the nation.
The only other report of a hefty sum requested by local government comes by way of a Bay Area news channel seeking records related to a Burlingame officer who got fired after supervisors learned of his inappropriate relations with women arrested by the department. Burlingame’s police chief requested $3,258.40 to fulfill the request for 25 audio and 4 video files, citing the same National Lawyers Guild v. City of Hayward case that Anaheim did.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California questioned the department’s interpretation of the cited case. “Our position remains that the PRA was designed to give the public access to records, and does not authorize charging excessive fees,” said Leslie Fulbright, ACLU spokeswoman.
We’ll put our GoFundMe campaign on hold while waiting for the ACLU of Southern California to lend its thoughts on Anaheim’s demanded deposit.