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A narrow ruling cuts a broad legal swath

Times Staff Writer

Steven Garcia is the Los Angeles police officer who fired 10 shots at Devin Brown, a 13-year-old boy who died as a result. The case attracted intense scrutiny, the city’s Police Commission ruled it improper and it ultimately cost taxpayers a $1.5-million legal settlement.

And yet, when Garcia last week faced an administrative hearing into allegations of misconduct arising from that 2005 shooting, the charges were considered in secret. That is a sharp departure by the Los Angeles Police Department, which has historically opened such hearings to the public.

Also last week, lawyers for the Los Angeles County Office of Independent Review, set up to ensure that misconduct by sheriff’s deputies is thoroughly and fairly investigated, arrived as usual before the county Civil Service Commission to listen in on cases. But when a lawyer for several accused deputies objected, the county monitors were sent out of the room.

In both instances, hearings were conducted in private because officials believe they are required to exclude the public under an August ruling of the California Supreme Court, which restricted access to documents -- though not hearings -- relating to the discipline of police officers. As that ruling has rippled through California, it has had profound consequences on public access to once-open proceedings, and in some cases agencies have gone well beyond what the ruling appears to call for, sealing not only police records but also hearings and records unrelated to law enforcement.

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“It has had a tremendous effect on our ability to provide transparency,” said Michael Gennaco, chief attorney for the Office of Independent Review. “In one fell swoop, so much has been closed.”

The court’s ruling in Copley Press Inc. vs. Superior Court of San Diego was specifically limited to records relating to the discipline of public safety employees.

In that case, the court rejected Copley’s attempts to obtain copies of disciplinary records in a San Diego County Sheriff’s Department misconduct case. It did not address government workers outside the field of law enforcement, and a footnote in the opinion made clear that it was not ruling on hearings, merely on documents.

“We express no opinion,” the justices wrote in that footnote, “regarding whether Copley has a constitutional right to attend commission appeal hearings.... The facts of this case do not present that question.”

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In addition to closing meetings despite that language, officials in some areas have swept up non-law enforcement records in their zeal to avoid disclosing anything that could possibly violate the ruling.

At the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission, for instance, officials who once posted agendas and minutes of their meetings have pulled those documents back, retroactively sealing years’ worth of public information.

Legal experts question the propriety of that approach because records, once released, generally are thought to be public thereafter.

Moreover, that has had the effect of making it far more difficult for anyone to determine how discipline was exacted not only on law enforcement employees but on other county workers as well, including doctors and nurses at the county’s troubled Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

Until the Supreme Court’s decision in the Copley case, all of the minutes of Civil Service Commission meetings held in the past two to three years were posted on the commission’s website, according to Rochelle Williams, chief of commission services.

After the decision, and on the advice of county lawyers, all of those minutes were pulled off the website (https://civilservice.lacountycommissions.info/), she said. Once those minutes are stripped of the names of law enforcement officers, she said, they will be posted again. But the redaction could take months.

Williams added that her staff is going over “each and every agenda” prior to the decision to remove the names of law enforcement personnel. Only the names of non-law enforcement employees can be made public, she said. “We have to make sure it’s not a peace officer,” she said.

Similar curtailing has occurred in the cities of Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco and at the state Personnel Board, officials said. Civilian police review boards have in some cases simply ceased holding hearings, according to a staff attorney at the ACLU.

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“This is clearly overkill,” said Tom Newton, general counsel to the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., which regularly lobbies the Legislature on behalf of open records.

At the LAPD, the shift has been particularly abrupt and out of character with the department’s history.

There, officers charged with serious offenses are sent to boards of rights, three-member panels that weigh allegations of misconduct and evaluate testimony and other evidence. Those boards have long been open to the public.

In 1991, the Christopher Commission, which examined LAPD practices in the wake of the beating of Rodney G. King, rejected calls for the creation of a civilian review board to supervise LAPD discipline and endorsed the continued use of boards.

Throughout its landmark report, the Christopher Commission strongly emphasized the need for public accountability of the Police Department, and the board of rights system remained open when the Christopher recommendations were adopted. Now, in the wake of the Copley decision, the LAPD has elected to shut the public out.

On Thursday, two Times reporters who appeared outside Garcia’s disciplinary hearing were turned away.

A sergeant from internal affairs said all such hearings are presumed closed unless the accused officer requests that they be open to the public. Police officials began closing the hearings more than a month ago on the advice of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, said Sgt. Craig Valenzuela. The reason, he said, was the court’s ruling in Copley.

City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a former chief of the LAPD, said the department was erring with that policy.

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“There has been a 25- to 30-year odyssey to let the public see, to make it transparent,” he said. “This just adds insult to injury.”

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jim.newton@latimes.com

Times staff writers Jeffrey L. Rabin and Scott Glover contributed to this report.


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