OIG Says Sheriff's Department Is Not Responsive to Records Requests

Sheriff Alex Villanueva seen speaking to the media during a

LOS ANGELES (CNS) - Los Angeles County's Office of Inspector General took aim again at the sheriff's department, issuing a report this week finding that records required to be released under a 2019 California law are routinely delayed.

“Transparency in urban policing is essential to ensuring that police enforce laws in a manner acceptable to the public. Secrecy in policing leads to unlawful practices and the belief, too often shared by police and communities, that the interest of the public and the police are not the same,'' the report began.

The OIG set out to assess the department's compliance with California's Right to Know Act, which became effective Jan. 1, 2019, and strips away the confidentiality of certain records related to the investigation of police shootings, use of force, sexual assault and false statements.

During 2019, the department received 2,909 requests from news agencies, private citizens and criminal defense attorneys, 70% of which remained outstanding as of January 23, 2020.

More than 1,900 of the requests were pending for more than 180 days without a response, despite a legal requirement to respond in some fashion within 24 days, according to the report. Completed requests took an average of 151 days.

Of the 851 reportedly completed requests, records were released in only five cases, including four shootings, according to information shared by department personnel with the OIG.

Sheriff Alex Villanueva disagrees with this analysis based on a statement he posted on the department website in June.

“Since November 2019, AAB has received a total of 2,848 requests for review. As of June 11, 2020, AAB has responded to 75% of the requests,'' Villanueva said, noting that he had asked the Board of Supervisors for additional funding and staffing to manage the records requests.

“The true goals and values of government can be found in how the budget is allocated. If something is deemed important, the Board of Supervisors has the responsibility and obligation to fully fund it,'' Villanueva posted in June.

“Due to our limited staffing and our lack of SB 1421 specified funding, the fulfillment of SB 1421 compliance has been difficult. We will continue to do the best we can with what we have in place.''

In November 2019, after OIG staffers met with the Discovery Unit handling requests and expressed their concerns, the department moved responsibility for responding to SB 1421 records requests to the Audit and Accountability Bureau and set up a new system for managing that workflow.

In a detailed response to the OIG report, the department said the OIG report did not take into account the shift in responsibility, calculating that the AAB completed 634 requests in December 2019.

When requests are pending, an email update on status is provided every 30 days, according to the department.

The process has improved, according to the OIG report, but the watchdog agency remains concerned about transparency, particularly in terms of how the department applies the exceptions to disclosure or justifies redacting information.

Not all records must be turned over. A request may be denied in the case of an ongoing investigation or if it is overly broad or burdensome or would pose a significant physical danger to someone. Personal information may also be redacted.

The OIG highlighted that records for deputy-involved shootings were produced for only four incidents as of July 6, 2020. The report noted that there are have 196 deputy-involved shootings in the last nine years, but did not note how many requests for information had been made.

The LASD has a “transparency'' portal on its public website where it posts information on deputy-involved shootings, use of force incidents resulting in great bodily injury and findings of sexual assault or dishonesty.

Information on 21 shootings, 10 use of force incidents and five other misconduct findings had been posted there as of the August date when the OIG completed its review. A total of 63 records had been posted as of the department's September response.

The OIG compared the Los Angeles Police Department's record of handling SB 1421 request with that the of sheriff's department. The report concluded that the LAPD “provides a blueprint for the efficient response to CPRA requests,'' pointing to better staffing, better software and a strong commitment to transparency by Chief Michel Moore.

Eleven lawsuits are pending against the LASD related to CPRA compliance, while the Los Angeles Police Department reported just one such suit, according to the report. Sheriff's Discovery Unit personnel told the OID that the LAPD has a much bigger staff to handle requests.

The OIG also raised concerns that the department is not keeping detailed documentation around its analysis and actions during the force review process.

“The public cannot review what does not exist,'' the report concludes, calling on the department to “produce detailed and substantive memoranda of its entire force review process.''

Photo: Getty Images

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