In a story written by Hillel Aron - COURTHOUSE NEWS SERVICE
July 21, 2023
The American Civil Liberties Union has been trying to obtain thousands of documents relating to police misconduct for four years.
A Los Angeles County judge on Friday ordered the city of Inglewood to comply with a four-year-old Public Records Act request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union to obtain documents relating to police misconduct and use of force.
An attorney for the city of Inglewood told the judge that the city had handed over 12,000 pages of records, and offered a number of justifications for not producing more records faster than it had. Some of the documents from internal affairs investigations, for example, had already been destroyed. And the city is a small one, she said. And the last few years have been turbulent.
"Look what the world has been dealing with, with Covid," added the lawyer, Dana Cohn. "Some people aren’t able to attend work." And then, a startling admission: "The Inglewood police chief has been on medical leave for six months." The chief, she said, is responsible for determining whether certain information can be disclosed.
"There are cases that are still being considered, whether discipline should be imposed," Cohn said. "If it produces records too quickly, that could result in more litigation."
The array of excuses left Judge Curtis Kin is unmoved. "I just don’t know why these things can’t be done over four years," the judge said.
After the hearing, ACLU attorney Melanie Ochoa said, "I’m pleased that Inglewood will finally have to comply with its obligations under the Public Records Act, and will produce records that it has withheld for far too long."
In 2018, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1421, which made a number of documents relating to police misconduct, including officer-involved shootings, use-of-force incidents, officers being accused of sexual assault, and officers lying to cover for fellow officers, accessible under the California Public Records Act. Weeks before SB 1421 was set to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019, the Los Angeles Times reported that Inglewood had destroyed hundreds of documents that were about to be covered by the new law.
At the time, Inglewood Mayor James Butts called the destruction of the documents "routine," and said that the "premise that there was an intent to beat the clock is ridiculous."
"I think Inglewood's intentional attempt to destroy records to prevent their release to public, which they did in 2018, demonstrates that they do not want the public to have increased access to records of police misconduct" said Ochoa.
At the start of 2019, the ACLU filed a number of large Public Records Act requests with law enforcement agencies all over the state, seeking newly discoverable records. Some departments complied; others refused. But Ochoa said Inglewood's attempt to withhold documents was especially egregious.
"Inglewood definitely stands out as a particularly bad actor," she said. "They made no effort to respond to our PRA, or any of the number of PRAs they received over the years until we filed this lawsuit. And while some agencies have initially refused, like the LA County Sheriff's Department, Inglewood said that it was working to produce the records, despite apparently having a policy of not releasing records."
The ACLU filed its suit in December 2021, after it learned that Inglewood was planning to destroy even more police records — again, weeks before another law, SB 16, that strengthened and expanded access to police discipline files, was set to go into effect. A different judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the city from its planned destruction.
On Friday, Ochoa asked Judge Kin for another injunction prohibiting Inglewood from destroying documents and "compelling prospective compliance with the PRA." The request left Judge Kin befuddled.
"I’m confused," the judge said to Ochoa. "PRA requests that have not been made? For time immemorial?"
"Yes," Ochoa answered. "Inglewood has a history of destroying records."
Judge Kin said now was not the time for such an order, but may do so in the future.
"Inglewood's ongoing refusal to produce responsive records to anyone who requests them demonstrates the need for policies that compel ongoing publication of public records, and that’s what we are trying to obtain," Ochoa said after the hearing.
Lawyers for the city of Inglewood declined to comment on the judge's ruling.