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A California city plans to shred years of police records before a new law makes them public

Inglewood officials say they’re just purging “obsolete” data. Civil liberties groups disagree.

Inglewood police officers.
City officials in Inglewood, California, are under scrutiny for a plan to destroy more than 100 police records days before a new statewide transparency law takes effect.
Mark Boster/LA Times via Getty Images

Officials in Inglewood, California, are planning to destroy dozens of police records days before a new statewide police transparency law is set to take effect — a decision which has alarmed civil rights groups and police accountability activists.

On December 22, the Los Angeles Times reported that the city of Inglewood (outside Los Angeles) had authorized the destruction of more than 100 police records dating back to 1991, days before a new state law allowing the public to access police records takes effect.

The new measure, which was signed into law in September, allows citizens to view records from sexual assault cases, incidents in which officers lied while on duty, officer-involved shootings, and other use-of-force incidents. The law is set to take effect on January 1, 2019.

Since California is the only state in which even prosecutors cannot directly obtain officer personnel files, according to the LA Times, civil rights groups say that the law is an important step in increasing police transparency and that destroying the files would be a grave mistake.

But Inglewood officials argue that the current controversy is the result of a misunderstanding over how long policing records must be preserved. They say destroying the records, some of which date back to 1991, is simply a routine purging of “obsolete” materials that “are of no further use to the Police Department.”

“This premise that there was an intent to beat the clock is ridiculous,” Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. said on Sunday.

California state law only requires that records be preserved for roughly five years, though a previous city-wide policy in Inglewood required that records of officer-involved shootings be kept for 25 years.

Still, given the timing of the proposed record purge, civil liberties groups and racial justice activists argue that Inglewood officials are attempting to escape accountability, pointing to several recent use-of-force controversies involving the Inglewood Police Department. The controversy comes as the agency continues to grapple with the aftermath of a 2016 shooting in which several officers opened fire on a couple sitting inside a car. The shooting fueled increased demands for transparency from the Police Department, and resulted in the firing of several officers.

“Communities demanded an end to the secrecy cloaking police misconduct and use of force,” Marcus Benigno, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said in a statement last week. “Inglewood PD’s decision to purge records undermines police accountability and transparency against the will of Californians.”

California’s new police records law could boost police transparency in the state

Over the past few years, several high profile cases of police misconduct, ranging from excessive use of force to officer-involved shootings, have led to increased scrutiny of police departments nationwide. These issues have been further pushed into the spotlight by the national prominence of Black Lives Matter and the work of other racial justice activists. In several of these cases, activists have been particularly critical of rules protecting police confidentiality that sharply limit the amount of information available to the public after an incident.

This issue has been particularly pronounced in California, where fights to access police records have been waged for decades, dating back to a massive purge of police documents in the 1970s. That purge, which saw officers in Los Angeles destroy more than four tons of personnel records rather than allow the information to be used in court, ushered in a protracted effort to improve transparency in the law enforcement realm.

Three months ago, Democratic California Gov. Jerry Brown passed a pair of laws aimed at increasing police transparency in a state known for having especially limited access to police records.

The first measure, Senate Bill 1421, increases public access to police records. The second bill, Assembly Bill 748, requires departments to release footage of officer-involved shootings and other use-of-force incidents within 45 days of an incident. This timeline can be pushed back if releasing footage would compromise an ongoing investigation.

Taken together, these laws are intended to pull the actions of police departments out of the shadows, something that police reform advocates and racial justice activists have repeatedly called for. “California is finally joining other states in granting access to the investigatory records on officer conduct that the public truly has a right to know,” state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), the author of Senate Bill 1421, said in a September statement.

But while civil rights groups welcomed the new legislation, police departments and unions have been far less receptive, arguing that the measure will expose information that needs to remain private.

In December, a police union in San Bernardino, California, filed a lawsuit demanding that the records law not be applied retroactively, saying that it would violate officers’ rights.

Community activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson told the LA Times on December 23 that Inglewood’s proposed plan to erase records “continues a pattern of lack of accountability.”

He argued that the new state records law could give families of those killed in police encounters closure, as well as enough information to seek legal relief. In 2010, the Inglewood Police Department was criticized by the US Department of Justice, which said that “the majority of the IPD’s policies and procedures are outdated,” adding that the department failed to have consistent definitions in use-of-force policies, or a standardized list of department authorized weapons.

“This action sends a terrible message that lack of transparency is still the policy in Inglewood,” Hutchinson said.

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