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Sheriff’s Department ordered to release misconduct, use-of-force records in response to Times lawsuit

Alex Villanueva speaks at a podium into a microphone
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva speaks to reporters in May.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

A judge ordered the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to promptly turn over records on thousands of cases of deputy misconduct and on-duty shootings after finding the agency had failed repeatedly to honor a public records request filed by The Times.

The department has 90 days to turn over records first sought by the newspaper in 2019, shortly after lawmakers passed a landmark police transparency law that made public previously confidential records about law enforcement officers. Under the law, Senate Bill 1421, shootings or other serious uses of force by officers, as well as confirmed cases of sexual assaults or acts of dishonesty by police, must be disclosed.

The Times requested records on all cases that fell within the scope of the new law, and under the state’s public records law, the department was required to provide them. However, while the department has identified more than 6,000 incidents that are likely to fall under the law, it was slow to begin producing records and then handed over files on only a small fraction of the incidents. The Times sued for the release of the records last year.

The Los Angeles Times has filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County, alleging that the Sheriff’s Department has repeatedly refused to turn over public records about deputies involved in misconduct or shootings.

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“This ‘We’ll get it done when we’ll get it done’ [approach] … is not acceptable under the Public Records Act,” Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff said in court Friday.

Beckloff said the Sheriff’s Department had engaged in “consistent feet dragging.” Considering the pace at which the agency was releasing records, Beckloff said it would have taken decades for the Sheriff’s Department to comply with The Times’ request.

An attorney representing L.A. County said in court Friday that Beckloff’s order to release the remaining records within 90 days was unrealistic. Representatives for the Sheriff’s Department did not immediately respond to a request for further comment, and county officials declined to comment.

“The order is an excellent and much-needed step in remedying the overwhelming failure of the Sheriff’s Department to disclose these records over the past 2 ½ years,” said Kelly Aviles, an attorney representing The Times. “We are pleased that the court recognized the importance of prompt disclosure of these important records related to misconduct and serious uses of force.”

While L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has claimed the department is “more transparent than ever before” under his leadership, the agency has repeatedly fought the release of records related to deputy misconduct and use of force during his tenure.

In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California sued the department on behalf of the relatives of people killed by deputies, after the agency withheld information related to those shootings. Last month, a Times report detailed how the department’s policy governing the release of the identities of deputies who open fire on duty was out of step with a 2014 California Supreme Court ruling and the policies of most other large law enforcement agencies in the state.

The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s refusal to name deputies who fire their weapons runs counter to a ruling by the California Supreme Court.

Villanueva, who had previously explained the secrecy around shootings by claiming that many of his deputies faced credible threats after shootings, changed the policy two weeks after The Times’ report.

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Law enforcement agencies and unions throughout California have repeatedly tried to stymie the release of records under the disclosure law.

In 2019, the union that represents L.A. County sheriff’s deputies tried to block the release of records related to incidents that predated the law, a move that was blocked by a judge. Earlier this year, a judge ordered the Oakland Police Department to release thousands of pages of records subject to disclosure under SB 1421 in response to a lawsuit filed by two Bay Area reporters. The California Highway Patrol was also sued by KQED last year over allegations it had failed to release similar records.


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