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Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times sue for records under SB 1421
The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times recently filed a joint lawsuit against the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department for refusing to follow a 2018 statute that requires the release of records on deputies who fired their weapons or engaged in misconduct on duty.
The statute, part of California State Senate Bill 1421, mandates that records of incidents involving the discharge of a firearm at a person by a peace officer or custodial officer be released to the public. It also stipulates incidents in which the use of force resulted in death or in great bodily injury be made available for public inspection, among other requirements.
Both The Bee and the L.A. Times filed public records requests that date back to 2014 in early January. Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones denied the request under the argument that SB 1421 does not apply retroactively, a claim that the two newspapers are challenging.
As the bill states, the public has a right to know about all serious police misconduct. Without public accountability, the law enforcement system cannot improve. When officials protect law enforcement officers who engage in misconduct, especially that which results in death, it perpetuates a system of oppression against marginalized communities and individuals.
In 2018, 115 people were shot and killed in California by police officers, according to a database curated by the Washington Post. Among those 115 was Stephon Clark, a black man from Sacramento. Two officers fired 20 rounds at Clark because of the alleged suspicion that he was carrying a handgun when he only had a cellphone. The two officers are still under investigation.
California Attorney General Xavier Becerra recently released a report that offers 49 recommendations for adopting changes concerning use of force training and other areas. But without access to records like those being requested by The Bee and the L.A. Times, the public has no way of knowing if these recommendations are being followed. Internal investigations are not enough to correct behavior and combat issues like aggressive force and racial profiling.
Public records are an integral part of responsible reporting. Without records requests being honored, journalists’ investigations are compromised. It was through the Freedom of Information Act that The California Aggie found out about two Title IX cases that were opened against UC Davis. Discoveries like these, as well as possible future discoveries that the release of records by the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department, are dependent on records being provided in a timely manner.
Even if the lawsuit determines that SB 1421 does not apply retroactively, the Sheriff’s Department has a responsibility to be transparent to the public. The refusal to release records not only compromises people’s faith in law enforcement, but also police officers’ ability to do their jobs well. The Editorial Board supports The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times in their efforts and demands that the Sacramento Sheriff’s Department comply with the records requests.
Written by: The Editorial Board