Appeals court rules police records generally must be public

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DON THOMPSON
Associated Press
SACRAMENTO (AP) — An appeals court ruled Wednesday against California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s refusal to release records his office obtained from other agencies regarding police shootings, use of force and officer misconduct.
Becerra had argued that it should be left to those other agencies to release their own documents under a state law that took effect last year. He said it would overburden his Department of Justice to have to sort through the voluminous records.
But the appeals court in San Francisco largely upheld a lower court ruling that Becerra must release the records.
The state’s transparency law generally requires releasing the records “regardless (of) whether the records pertain to officers employed by the Department or by another public agency,” the three-judge appellate panel unanimously ruled.
The court stopped short of ordering Becerra to immediately release the records, however. It said the lower court could reconsider if Becerra makes a better argument that keeping the records private outweighs the public interest in their release. It said his office initially “did not adequately demonstrate” that to be the case.
The First Amendment Coalition and KQED radio brought the lawsuit against Becerra. The Associated Press and many other news organizations have joined it.
“We would hope that they would now begin the process of compliance, but given how they’ve handled this case so far I think there’s a very good chance they will continue to drag their heels and assert every exemption they can lay their hands on,” said Glen Smith, the First Amendment Coalition’s litigation director.
He added that, “It’s good that the court came out very strongly in favor of public access and recognized the importance of (the new law) and the transformative effect it had on police accountability.”
Becerra’s office said it is reviewing the decision, with no further comment. He previously said requiring his office to sort through other agencies’ records “would grind to a halt so many of the other things we have to do.”
But a lawyer for the First Amendment Coalition and news organizations argued that legislators took that burden and cost into account when they passed the law.
Becerra has agreed to release records involving his own agents, but the attorney’s general’s office also is a repository for years of local police investigations. The news organizations’ attorney said Becerra’s office may still have internal affairs records that had been destroyed by local agencies, because California law requires state agencies to keep records longer than local governments.