Calif. newsrooms team up to handle police misconduct records dump

“Too many police misconduct and use-of-force investigations becoming public” isn’t the worst problem for a newsroom to have. But, in California, hundreds of those investigative files have been released since a new law took effect January 1, and thousands more are likely to become public in the near future. To deal with this deluge, 33 new organizations in the state have form the California Reporting Project, a cooperative that has so far made more than 1,100 public records requests for police investigations covered under Senate Bill 1421.

The law, signed last year by then–Governor Jerry Brown, gives the public access to internal investigations of serious injuries, including shootings, inflicted by law enforcement officers and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying on duty. It took effect January 1, though there has been dispute over whether it should apply to records generated before then. The bill’s author, Bay Area Democrat Nancy Skinner, has said it was meant to apply to older cases. Courts in California have issued conflicting rulings and its Supreme Court declined to weigh in. For now, some police agencies are providing older records, and some aren’t.

The California Reporting Project is asking every police agency in the state for its records on all investigations going back five years, says Sukey Lewis, a criminal justice reporter with the Northern California public radio station KQED, and one of the group’s founding members.

The California Reporting Project started last fall, just after Senate Bill 1421 was signed into law, when Lewis and a colleague, Alex Emslie, started talking about which records they wanted and what to do with them. “We decided we want all of them in the whole state, but we’re a two-person criminal justice team at a public radio station, so what is our capacity to do that?” Lewis says. “We started reaching out to reporters and higher-ups in other newsrooms, and a lot of them had the same questions. This is a big sea change in policy in California. These records have been sealed for a long time.”

The founding members of the group in Northern California were KQED, Bay Area News Group, which includes the Mercury News and other Alden Capital-owned papers, and Investigative Studios, a nonprofit affiliated with the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. In Southern California, the effort was led by the Los Angeles Times and KPCC, an NPR station.

ICYMI: A class-action suit has journalists “freaking out”

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

When the clock turned midnight on January 1, the group was ready. Reporters from KQED, Bay Area News Group and Investigative Studios worked with Berkeley graduate students to build an automated system that sent out around 300 public records requests at 12:01am, Lewis says.

There are around 700 police agencies in California, including city police departments, county sheriffs, and district attorneys, and state agencies like the California Highway Patrol. The California Reporting Project has made a total of 1,100 records requests from 675 agencies, Lewis says; 134 have turned over something, 240 said they don’t have any files to turn over, and the rest have refused, either because they claim the law isn’t retroactive, because police unions have sued to stop them, or because they want to wait until the lawsuits are settled. Some police departments, including those in Inglewood and Fremont, destroyed records before they became public.

The records requested by any member of the collective are uploaded and shared with the entire group, and sometimes the members collaborate on stories. The members have also teamed up in fighting police union lawsuits to suppress records, and they can split the cost of records when a police agency charges for them.

Once the files are shared, reporters do triage, prioritizing the ones that are in their coverage areas, that involve serious misconduct, and that happened recently or involve officers still on the force.

These stories have been trickling out all year. On March 19, the LA Times published one about a former South Pasadena police officer who resigned in 2017. The officer, Ryan Bernal, was off duty and had been drinking when he drove his pickup truck into a house. According to the internal affairs investigation, Bernal walked away from the crash and hailed a ride home. The next morning, his mother claimed to investigators that she had been behind the wheel. Bernal was never charged.

Another story by Lewis and Thomas Peele of Bay Area News Group explored the case of Steven Richter, a former San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy and California Department of Consumer Affairs investigator. Richter admitted to stealing bullets from his employers for as long as 30 years and trading them to a gun wholesaler in exchange for weapons. Like Bernal, he never faced criminal charges.

Beyond the individual stories, news outlets are starting to analyze the patterns in these files, to see how many dishonest officers remain on the force, or how many Californians are killed by police.

“People are understandably competitive about reporting on these stories, but this seemed like a really good opportunity to share,” says Demian Bulwa, the metro editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, which recently joined the project. “In a case like this, the public doesn’t really care for us to spar over it. They want to know what’s going on.”

ICYMI: Why the left can’t stand The New York Times

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.