Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca said Monday that he would allow limited public scrutiny of eight boxes of documents related to the slaying of journalist Ruben Salazar in a case that has been clouded by controversy and speculation for 40 years.
Baca said the records, long kept confidential, will be available after the Sheriff’s Department’s civilian watchdog on Tuesday formally releases a report on Salazar’s killing. A draft copy of that report was obtained by The Times and made public over the weekend.
The viewing of the records will initially be restricted to media and academics and be supervised by department employees, officials said. Since 1994, The Times has filed repeated requests to the view the records.
No copies of the records will be provided, and no cameras will be allowed inside the viewing room, Baca said.
“I’m willing to share the information, but I don’t think I can share ownership,” Baca said. “In today’s world, with whatever technology is out there, I think original documents must remain original. I don’t think anybody else should be taking these documents, blacking out parts of these documents…. I’m extraordinarily aware that documents can be altered.”
Salazar, 42, was an award-winning Times reporter and news director at Spanish-language KMEX-TV. The journalist was shot in the head by a tear gas missile fired by a deputy. Salazar had been in a bar taking a break from covering a huge anti-Vietnam War demonstration in East Los Angeles that had become a riot.
His killing became a seminal moment in the Mexican American civil rights movement. After his death, Salazar became an iconic figure, with parks, schools, scholarships and even a U.S. postage stamp in his honor.
In recent months, Salazar’s relatives have been allowed access to the records but had to sign confidentiality agreements preventing them from discussing the information in the files.
On Tuesday, Lisa Salazar Johnson applauded Baca’s decision to unseal the thousands of records connected to her father’s slaying.
“I’m happy for my dad that this is finally going to get the scrutiny that it deserves from people outside the Sheriff’s Department,” she said.
Cal State Northridge professor Raul Ruiz said Baca’s decision was a step in the right direction but added that legal experts, forensic scientists and others should also be allowed to view the records.
“The general public should have access to these historical documents,” said Ruiz, who knew Salazar and took photographs on Aug. 29, 1970, as deputies surrounded the Silver Dollar Cafe moments before the fatal projectile was fired.
In the weeks before his death, Salazar and his KMEX crew had been investigating allegations of misconduct by sheriff’s deputies and Los Angeles police. The newsman had told friends that he thought he was being shadowed by authorities and feared they might do something to discredit his reporting.
Salazar’s friends and others have suggested he was targeted by authorities because his aggressive coverage of issues on L.A.'s Eastside had provided a voice for a growing Mexican American community caught up in the turbulence of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
But the report by the department’s civilian watchdog — the Office of Independent Review — concluded that a series of tactical mistakes by deputies led to the newsman’s slaying. It also said there was no evidence that deputies had Salazar under surveillance or intentionally targeted him after he entered the Silver Dollar.
The report acknowledged that its conclusions were limited on the key issue in Salazar’s slaying — whether he was a victim of a plot by authorities — because sheriff’s homicide detectives at the time discounted theories that the journalist was killed intentionally. As a result, they failed to ask questions that might have prevented the speculation and conspiracy theories that haunt the case to this day.
Baca said the report shows how far the department has progressed. Deputies today receive more training and are under tougher scrutiny from supervisors, Baca said. Tear gas, for example, could not be shot into an occupied space under current protocol without approval from a higher-up. Deputies fired tear gas into the bar after receiving reports that an armed man was inside.
“We would leave the problem intact,” Baca said, “until we had the right resources to go after someone with a gun.”
Though Baca acknowledged shortcomings in the department’s handling of the incident, he also blamed rioters. A young sergeant at the time, Baca said he was at the demonstration, which attracted 20,000 or more people, and saw out-of-town protesters breaking benches, smashing windows and throwing rocks at deputies.
“I don’t think it gave the department a black eye as much as it was tragedy that was unintended by the department and the deputies,” Baca said. “The black eye, if there’s any black eye, was the extraordinary amount of rioting going on during Mr. Salazar’s death.... The nature of rioting can lead to consequences unintended.
“I don’t think that’s an excuse for what happened to Mr. Salazar,” he added.
Baca said the department today would investigate a similar incident more thoroughly. In tandem with a probe by homicide detectives, the training bureau would examine deputies’ actions for potential policy violations, Baca said.
The incident would also be reviewed by the Office of Independent Review, he said, so that no conclusions are arrived at “without any outside eyes.”