By Martin Macias Jr.
LOS ANGELES – A California law requiring public disclosure of police misconduct records has been challenged by police unions in courts across the state, but received support Wednesday from Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva.
Police officer unions, including the Los Angeles Police Protective League and the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, have sued to bar retroactive enforcement of California Senate Bill 1421. The bill requires the release of records on police shootings, excessive uses of force and confirmed cases of lying and sexual assault by on-duty officers.
Attorneys for unions have argued in courts across the state that the bill violates officers’ privacy rights and that the Legislature did not intend for the law to apply to records produced before the law took effect Jan. 1.
But Villanueva, who was elected this past November on a progressive reform platform, disagrees, telling reporters at the LA Hall of Justice that records should be unsealed.
The sheriff’s position on the bill marks a stark contrast to the one taken by the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which backed him financially in his election campaign and has also spearheaded legal challenges to SB 1421 in LA courts.
“I support the idea of transparency,” Villanueva said. “The idea behind [Senate Bill] 1421 is a sound one but it can’t compromise the safety of individuals who are providing our public safety.”
Officers involved in fatal shootings or excessive uses of force face threats to their safety when their identity is revealed in unsealed records, Villanueva said, adding “anybody with a keyboard and some money can find anyone’s home address.”
Satisfying requests for records under SB 1421 falls on a department Villanueva said is too understaffed to swiftly release records, however.
“It’s a question of cost at this point,” Villanueva said, noting requests for decades-old records are particularly hard to fulfill. “It requires an enormous amount of manpower to satisfy [those requests.]”
Undersheriff Ray Leyva said a request for funding to hire more staff in the records department has been submitted to the county Board of Supervisors. But he added approval of the funds may be delayed by ongoing court challenges to SB 1421, which may eventually end up before the U.S Supreme Court.
“People are asking for the world and it takes a lot of resources to deliver the world,” Villanueva said.
The police union’s effort to block the unsealing of records in Los Angeles County was thwarted Feb. 19 by Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff, who ruled the seal would only remain in effect until March 1 at 3 p.m.
LAPPL spokesperson Dustin DeRollo confirmed Wednesday that the union has declined to pursue an appeal of Judge Beckloff’s ruling.
In a statement, the union said it believes polices departments should comply with records requests, adding that its legal challenges were focused on protecting officers’ privacy rights.
“The reality is that any officer with a sustained complaint of sexual assault, or lying in an official capacity, is highly likely to not be employed by the Los Angeles Police Department any longer due to our robust discipline process,” the statement said.
Melanie Ochoa, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said in a statement Wednesday that she was pleased with the union’s decision.
“We are glad that the LAPD officers’ union, after being completely rebuffed by the Superior Court, has abandoned its attempt to limit public access to police records, a move that would have thwarted the will of the state Legislature and kept police misconduct hidden from the public,” Ochoa said.
San Diego County Sheriff William Gore and Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick have also publicly backed the transparency law. And law enforcement agencies across the state, including the California Highway Patrol, are complying with the new law and handing over requested personnel records.
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