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Battle over police records reaches California appeals court

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SAN FRANCISCO — The California attorney general's office urged a state appeals court Thursday to refrain from ordering it to review and publicly release a massive trove of records documenting investigations into police shootings, use-of-force incidents and officer misconduct.

Lawyers for Attorney General Xavier Becerra said a transparency law that took effect this year never intended for his office to commit the extraordinary resources needed to vet so many records. They sought to reverse a lower court's order to turn over the records to news organizations that sued his office.

Deputy Attorney General Jennifer E. Rosenberg told a three-judge panel that state lawmakers may not have considered imposing “this enormous burden” on Becerra's office when drafting the bill.

“It might have been an oversight,” she said.

The First Amendment Coalition and KQED brought the lawsuit against Becerra and The Associated Press and many other news organizations have joined it.

Their attorney, Michael T. Risher, said the Legislature specifically considered the cost of the attorney general's compliance when they passed the law, and argued the public's right to know about police misconduct outweighs the cost of disclosing such information.

“It was a watershed law; it eliminates decades of police secrecy. Of course it's going to create a burden," Risher said.

The law took effect Jan. 1 but many local agencies rebuffed media attempts to obtain existing records, arguing the law only was intended to require the disclosure of new records. After lower courts ruled for disclosure, police unions representing San Francisco and Los Angeles police departments and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's sworn personnel withdrew their lawsuits seeking to block the release.

But the attorney's general's office, which is a repository for years of local police investigations, has continued fighting.

At a news conference earlier in the week, Becerra said his office has released pre-2019 documents on agents from its Division of Law Enforcement. He doesn't oppose the release of older documents involving local agencies but said those agencies should be the ones to disclose them.

“For us it would be an onerous obligation to have to redo what the (local) agency is already obligated to do,” he said. “It would grind to a halt so many of the other things we have to do if all of a sudden we have to redirect our resources away from law enforcement and public safety to do data assessment and release of information that other agencies already are doing."

Risher submitted to the appeals court evidence that some agencies may have or did destroy records of internal affairs before the law took effect. He said it was possible those records may still reside at the attorney general's office because California law requires state agencies to hold onto records longer than local governments.

The California Reporting Project, a coalition of 40 media outlets, was formed to mine documents made available by the new law. Its members have filed hundreds of public records records seeking police records.

The appeals court in San Francisco has up to 90 days to decide on Becerra's appeal.

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This story has been corrected to reflect that the arguments happened Thursday, not Friday.

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Associated Press writer Don Thompson in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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