The California Reporting Project is a statewide coalition of 40 newsrooms committed to working together to obtain and report on police records newly available to the public.
These newsrooms share a belief that it is in the public interest to acquire and present these records, which had long been hidden from the people of California under restrictive state laws.
What is SB 1421?
California’s lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1421 in 2018 and the law went into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. Also known as the “Right to Know Act,” SB 1421 chipped away at a four-decade wall of secrecy concerning police internal investigations and officer discipline in California.
The legislation altered state laws passed in 1978 that made police personnel information almost entirely secret under privacy protections for sworn officers. The public’s access to information was further limited by a 2006 California Supreme Court ruling known as Copley Press.
The justices ruled the public did not have the right to disciplinary or personnel records, even if the sworn officer appealed his or her discipline. Up until then, such appeals had been one window into how law enforcement agencies handled discipline when an officer committed misconduct. After that ruling, California became known as the most secretive state when it came to access to police misconduct information.
In the subsequent years, powerful statewide law enforcement groups successfully opposed legislative efforts to grant at least some public access to police misconduct files.
Then in March 2018, Stephon Clark was shot and killed by Sacramento police. His death -- and questions surrounding the circumstances -- resulted in weeks of protests and focused attention on police use of force. It also shifted the conversation in the state capitol and galvanized legislators to act.
Within months, Senate Bill 1421, which was introduced prior to Clark’s death, passed both houses of the state Legislature. The bill, sponsored by State Sen. Nancy Skinner, who represents the East Bay, was signed into law by then-Gov. Jerry Brown on Sept. 30, 2018.
What SB 1421 does (and doesn’t) do
The law does not grant unlimited access to police personnel files.
It does, however, grant access to three major categories of records:
All use-of-force records are accessible under the new law, even if the officer was found to have acted within policy. That’s not true of the other two categories, which require a finding of misconduct for the records to be made public.
That means citizen complaints and other allegations are not available to the public unless they have been substantiated by an internal investigation.
All Californians have the right to this information. By pooling resources, we can expedite the public’s right to access misconduct and deadly use-of-force materials.
How did the California Reporting Project start?
After so many years of secrecy, it was hard to know what to expect when Senate Bill 1421 took effect. Criminal justice reporters at KQED in San Francisco believed there was an opportunity to obtain the records and share the details with the public.
The task ahead seemed massive. Getting a full picture of what was going on in California would require filing public records act requests with every law enforcement agency in the state. Such an effort was unprecedented in scale. It was also clear that such requests would be opposed by some police and deputies’ unions and would likely end up in court. In short, this was too big a task for any one newsroom.
That led KQED to reach out to other public media newsrooms about a possible collaboration, an effort that quickly expanded to include other major media organizations. The six founding organizations are:
Journalists agreed to collaboratively request the newly unsealed records at the beginning of the new year.
The coalition was soon tested. A law firm representing police unions throughout the state sought an injunction from the California Supreme Court to block the release of information on any cases prior to the law’s effective date of Jan. 1, 2019. The news organizations quickly formed a legal coalition (which is still active) to defend the law’s promised transparency. That defense was successful, and the high court declined to hear the challenge.
When the law went into effect just after the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2019, the coalition was able to send out several hundred public records requests to law enforcement agencies in the state.
As that initial effort grew, more and more newsrooms throughout the state asked to join the coalition. The California Reporting Project now includes 40 news organizations.
The California Reporting Project’s launch in the news:
This coalition of California news organizations seeks to expose and examine information about police misconduct, use of force and the systems of accountability for law enforcement agencies throughout the state.
Journalists throughout the state have agreed to work together to best serve the public.
This coalition of news organizations has joined forces to collect information of the utmost public interest, and make it accessible to the public.
We will analyze statewide information on serious police misconduct and deadly use of force, presenting a deep look at law enforcement accountability over several years when the outcomes of internal investigations was presumed to be secret.
Participating newsrooms include daily newspapers, public radio stations, nonprofit news outlets and other California news media entities.
UNSEALED: California’s Secret Police Files
We’ve sent 1,305 public records requests to 723 state, regional and local law enforcement and oversight agencies regarding officer conduct since Senate Bill 1421 took effect on Jan. 1, 2019. These agencies included police departments, sheriffs, district attorneys, prisons, probation departments, school districts, and state and community colleges and universities. In most instances, our news organizations asked for most recent five years of data available.
As of Aug. 12, 2019, we've collectively received records from 483 requests from 309 agencies involving an estimated 317 incidents of official dishonesty, 226 incidents of sexual assault and 500 use of force cases.*
*Some requests involved records on more than one incident and/or more than one type of incident.
KEY LEGAL MOMENTS
Police Unions Sue to Block Access, Newsrooms Fight Back
After the state Supreme Court declined on Jan. 2 to hear the challenge to Senate Bill 1421’s “retroactivity,” attorneys for police unions vowed to file similar challenges in county superior courts throughout California. These legal challenges numbered in the dozens and temporarily stopped local police departments and sheriffs from providing records while courts considered the arguments.
In Northern California, six law enforcement unions in Contra Costa County sued in late January, arguing that the release of previously secret records on officer sexual assault, dishonesty and deadly use of force would “eviscerate” pre-existing privacy rights of police. The Bay Area News Group, KQED and the Center for Investigative Reporting joined the First Amendment Coalition and intervened in the case. A Feb. 8 order by a Contra Costa Superior Court judge directing Walnut Creek, Martinez, Richmond, Antioch, Concord and the Contra Costa County sheriff to provide the records was the first such ruling in the state.
The unions appealed, and judges summarily denied their petition on March 29, finding arguments that past cases shouldn’t be released were “without merit.” The judges granted a request by the legal coalition representing the California Reporting Project that the ruling be published, establishing controlling case law throughout the state that these records should be made public.
In Southern California, the Los Angeles Times and KPCC intervened in several cases to defend public access to the newly unsealed files, winning every case so far except one, an appeal filed by the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which is still pending.
Similar court challenges brought by law enforcement unions in Orange, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, Fresno and Merced counties were all either rejected or withdrawn.
A Ventura County judge contradicted every other decision to date in a June 19 ruling that blocked public access to pre-2019 records in the county. The public defender appealed the ruling July 5. The case is ongoing.
Going on the Offensive
The news and legal coalitions did not just defend the public’s right to access. We’ve filed several cases of our own seeking to force the release of records from agencies that are stalling release.
That includes a lawsuit against the top law enforcement official in the state, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, whose office had refused to release internal police records. Becerra’s decision not only blocked access to misconduct and serious use of force by state agents, but was also cited by local law enforcement agencies throughout the state as a reason they, too, also could delay or decline to produce the newly unsealed information.
KQED joined the First Amendment Coalition in a lawsuit against the attorney general, and on May 17 a San Francisco judge ruled against Becerra and ordered the California Department of Justice to start providing records.
The Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee filed similar litigation against the sheriff in the State Capitol, winning an order in early June that the release of information on just one 10-year-old case after nearly six months was not an adequate response and violates state law.
To date, the coalition has produced more than 125 original stories about its fight for access to California’s police conduct and use-of-force records and the information those files contained. Below is a selection of work from various partner organizations.
Q: When will your data be made public?
Our current best estimate is 2020.
Q: Who do I send a tip to?
Please fill out this form.
Q: Who's funding this project?
To date, we are self-sustained, but hoping to secure funding to support the growth of the collaboration. If you are interested in funding this project, email Chris Perrius at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To make a donation to support this project, please visit the donation form here: https://donate.kqed.org/secure/supportunsealed
Q: How can I help?
In the coming months we’ll be seeking help from people knowledgeable about policing and legal issues. We’ll post more details soon.