Some police officers were disciplined for illegal sexual activity or dishonesty and evaded criminal prosecution. Others used deadly force but details of their actions have long remained out of the public’s view.
The California Reporting Project — a partnership of 33 newsrooms across the state — launched Tuesday in an effort to combine resources to review internal police records that became public under a new transparency law that took effect this year.
The Los Angeles Times is part of the collaborative, which has filed requests with more than 600 law enforcement agencies and so far received records of hundreds of incidents in which officers used significant or deadly force, were found to have been dishonest or committed sexual misconduct. Other members of the collaborative include KPCC, the Orange County Register, KQED, the San Jose Mercury News, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and other media outlets.
The documents reviewed by the collaborative provide a window into how California police departments evaluate misconduct, shootings and other force by their officers — issues that have fueled criticism that law enforcement agencies aren’t open enough with the people they serve.
Here’s some of the stories that have relied on records released under the new transparency law:
- The Times detailed an investigation into a South Pasadena police officer who was fired after he admitted fleeing the scene of an off-duty crash. Cpl. Ryan Bernal had been drinking with colleagues at an after-work gathering before he crashed into a pole, which struck and damaged a home, according to internal records. Hours later, he accompanied his mother as she falsely told sheriff’s officials that she had been behind the wheel, the records show.
- San Francisco-based KQED and the Bay Area News Group reported that a Rio Vista police officer entered a home in 2017 and immediately put a man in a chokehold for 20 seconds, which was captured in body camera images. That officer was fired. The radio station also found that two officers in Watsonville in Santa Cruz County had been fired in recent years for repeatedly having sex with civilians while on duty.
- The San Diego Union-Tribune found a San Diego County sheriff’s lieutenant had embezzled more than $100,000 in donations from her church, according to an internal affairs investigation. She agreed to pay back the missing funds and was not prosecuted. She retired from the department in 2013. The newspaper also reported about a Chula Vista police officer who was fired last year for having sex while on duty and in uniform in a public area.
- Last week, The Times published details from the first records released by the Los Angeles Police Department, which included officers fired in connection with allegations of sexual assault and of making false statements under oath.
The disclosure of the records marks a stark departure for California. For years, the state had the nation’s strictest laws on disclosing police personnel records, due in large part to the lobbying efforts of powerful law enforcement unions that wanted to keep the files confidential. All internal disciplinary records were confidential.
That changed last year with the passage of Senate Bill 1421, which allows for the release of records of shootings by officers, severe uses of force and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying by officers.