Prodded by court ruling, Sonoma County Sheriff relents and agrees to release police records

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The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that within a week it will begin releasing police records it had previously withheld, following an appeals court decision last week on the issue and a legal threat to the county Tuesday.

California news organizations, including The Press Democrat, had requested the records under a new state law known as Senate Bill 1421. The law opens to the public certain types of law enforcement records that used to be private.

The law provides for the release of police disciplinary records in cases when an internal investigation found an officer lied or had committed sexual assault against a member of the public. It also provides for the release of all internal investigative files into cases of serious uses of force by officers, including police shootings.

“I was waiting for the courts to make a decision and now that the court has made this decision, we are going to begin releasing the records,” Sheriff Mark Essick said in an interview Wednesday.

Last month, Santa Rosa officials also refused requests by The Press Democrat and other news organizations to release the records “until such time as the legal question of retroactive application of the statute is resolved by the courts.”

It’s unclear if the city now plans to follow the county’s lead and release police records. Santa Rosa Mayor Tom Schwedhelm did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday. Phone calls and emails to the city attorney’s office were not returned.

Multiple court cases brought by police unions around the state challenged whether the new law applied to records drafted before Jan. 1.

The unions, representing police officers statewide, sought court rulings that the law is not “retroactive” and does not apply to records drafted before the law went into effect at the beginning of the year. So far, no court has ruled definitively in their favor, though in some cases they have received preliminary rulings allowing them to withhold records while the cases are ongoing. The California Supreme Court twice declined to hear appeals from the unions.

Last week, the County Counsel’s office sent a letter to multiple news organizations saying it would not release the records until the issue had been definitively settled by the courts.

But on Friday, the First District Court of Appeals published a ruling on the issue it had made earlier in March, calling the unions’ argument “without merit.”

Then, on Tuesday, Sonoma County and the City of Santa Rosa received a legal threat regarding the police records. Jim Wheaton, a lawyer with Oakland-based nonprofit the First Amendment Project, sent a letter to the county counsel and the city attorney on behalf of an organization called Sonoma Citizens for Transparency in Government, threatening a lawsuit if the police records are not released by Friday.

“This stuff is public and has to be released,” Wheaton said. “There is no reason to wait any more.”

John Mutz, who ran against Essick for county sheriff and a spokesman for Sonoma Citizens for Transparency in Government, called the Sheriff’s decision “encouraging.”

“We have some police officials complying with 1421, who are out in front with this, and we have some who are not,” he said. “So I really acknowledge those police officials that are being transparent and opening their organization up, and I encourage the others who are not, to do so.”

Mutz, who was a station commander with the Los Angeles Police Department, said police agencies’ compliance with the law will help build community trust in law enforcement, and increase officers’ trust in their own leadership.

“This resistance to provide this information per 1421 hurts the majority of law-enforcement officers themselves,” he said. “Because it questions their credibility, while the majority of them are doing a good job and they’re stand-up people.”

Essick said the legal threat did not affect his decision to release the records, and he had been advised by county counsel that the appellate court’s ruling became binding once it was published on Friday.

“This decision is not based on the demand letter. I can tell you that,” Essick said. “I believe in transparency, I (thought) that ultimately the courts will rule these are releasable, but I was just trying to be cautious.”

A representative from the county counsel’s office referred questions on the matter to the Sheriff’s Office.

Several North Bay law enforcement agencies already had released the records before the appeals court’s decision. Healdsburg and St. Helena turned over records relating to officer misconduct, while Rohnert Park and other agencies have released files relating to serious officer use-of-force cases.

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or andrew.beale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @iambeale.

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