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Regional Interests

New California AG Continues to Withhold Important Police Records Despite ‘Effort to Increase Trans

California’s new Attorney General Rob Bonta announced an “effort to increase transparency” and “accelerate” the release police use-of-force and misconduct records Friday, well over two years after a landmark police transparency law granted public access to those files and KQED requested them via the state Public Records Act.

But Bonta’s press release glosses over or completely omits aspects of long-running litigation brought by KQED and the First Amendment Coalition, including the California Department of Justice’s continued withholding of some of the most crucial files related to potential crimes committed by police officers, according to attorneys involved in the case.

“For decades, peace officer misconduct records have been shrouded in secrecy,” Bonta said in a press release. “At the California Department of Justice, we know it’s on us to set the standard and we’re ready to take on this important challenge.”

The announcement comes amid an ongoing lawsuit filed by the First Amendment Coalition and KQED in early 2019, after Bonta’s predecessor Xavier Becerra refused to provide state-level records on police shootings, sexual assault and dishonesty by law enforcement.

“We are glad the Attorney General has now expressed a commitment to transparency and we would welcome that approach in this case,” said David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. “We look forward to finally seeing the public records we requested more than two years ago.”

But the attorney general didn’t decide to speed up the release of records on his own. That was ordered by a judge, according to KQED’s attorney Thomas Burke.

“This schedule is something that the court ordered in this litigation,” Burke said. “But we look forward to what purports to be a new commitment to transparency by the attorney general.”

The files released by the attorney general’s office so far have consisted of police incident reports and other documents created by local law enforcement agencies. But the FAC and KQED’s litigation has exposed that the the state Department of Justice also conducts reviews of decisions by local prosecutors in at least some police shooting cases, as well as other cases that may involve criminal misconduct by law enforcement officers.

“They have made it clear that they plan to withhold the attorney general reports about whether or not shootings were appropriate,” Burke said of the so-called “conflict review” files that Bonta’s office has argued are exempt from disclosure. “If the attorney general is serious about transparency, he ought to act to make sure that he is making those reviews public.”

The Attorney General’s Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bonta’s announcement goes on to say that the Attorney General’s Office will provide all the responsive records created by local police and sheriff’s departments by Sept. 26. A month later, the attorney general is ordered to produce a list of all records it has withheld from production.

And by mid-November, KQED, FAC and the Attorney General’s Office are scheduled to be back in San Francisco Superior Court to argue “any remaining legal disputes concerning the production,” according to Judge Richard Ulmer’s order issued Friday.

Copyright 2021 KQED