Santa Rosa declines to release police misconduct records despite new court ruling

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Santa Rosa officials say they will continue to withhold records detailing past misconduct by city police officers, contending a decision by the state Supreme Court on a pending case was needed to clarify the extent to which such law enforcement personnel records can be made public.

The stance puts the city and its police force at odds with a growing number of law enforcement agencies that have released or pledged to disclose past and current officer records under a new state police transparency law. They include the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and several other police departments in the county.

For some, the turning point came last week, after the publication of an appellate court ruling that ordered the release of records, a decision that legal experts say is binding across the state. Police unions have argued that the law does not apply to records created before Jan. 1, an argument that has thus far been largely rejected by the courts.

But Santa Rosa city officials say they will hold off on any disclosure of records dated before Jan. 1 until a case dealing with so-called “Brady lists,” or internal department lists of problem officers, is resolved by the California Supreme Court.

That case, brought by a union representing Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies, is not directly related to the new police transparency law, SB 1421, but the state Supreme Court has asked both sides in the case to present arguments as to whether SB 1421 has a bearing on the release of Brady lists.

Santa Rosa Police Chief Hank Schreeder said his department would continue to withhold records created before Jan. 1 because if the state Supreme Court finds the law does not apply to past cases, the city may be vulnerable to lawsuits by officers named in the records.

Schreeder’s comments echoed a concern he and Sonoma County Sheriff Mark Essick voiced last month before publication of the ruling by the 1st District Court of Appeals, a legal development which caused Essick to pivot on Wednesday and pledge his office would begin releasing records as soon as this week.

Schreeder, however, said his department and the city of Santa Rosa had not reached that point.

“We’re not using the court cases, necessarily, as a stall tactic,” Schreeder said. “We’re monitoring it because it’s in the best interest of the people involved.”

The transparency 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.

The Press Democrat requested those records from all law enforcement agencies in Sonoma County at the beginning of the year, after the new law went into effect.

Santa Rosa City Attorney Sue Gallagher said the city is preserving all records that may be releasable under SB 1421, and continuing the process of redacting sensitive personal information in case the Supreme Court rules on the matter. The first batch of records should be ready to release in a matter of weeks, Gallagher said, and the city will watch the courts and reevaluate whether to release them at that point.

“We’re going to hold off on making any decisions. Once those documents are ready we’re going to evaluate again where we are in the process and where the courts are,” Gallagher said.

The state Supreme Court has twice declined to hear cases directly related to SB 1421, allowing lower-court rulings that the records must be released to stand. And the bill’s author, state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D- Berkeley, has been clear that she meant the law to apply retroactively. California Attorney General Javier Becerra has said he shares the same interpretation, but said that the question needed to be resolved by the courts.

Numerous law enforcement agencies around the state, including police departments in Healdsburg, Sebastopol and Rohnert Park, have already released records created before Jan. 1.

David Snyder, executive director of the San Rafael- based First Amendment Coalition, said the issue has been decided, and Santa Rosa is legally obligated to produce the records.

“There is law now that is binding on the 1st (Appellate) District, and the state for that matter. So to the extent that they weren’t bound by SB 1421 as soon as it went into effect, and I think that they were … those questions have been answered,” he said. “It’s interesting that the police department has come up with this new argument for not releasing records. Unfortunate.”

California’s 1st Appellate District spans 12 Northern California counties, including Sonoma.

Essick, who leads the county’s largest law enforcement agency, concluded the Sheriff’s Office was bound by the appellate court’s decision.

“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,” Essick said Wednesday in an interview.

Tuesday, a group called Sonoma Citizens for Transparency in Government sent a letter to Santa Rosa and Sonoma County, threatening a lawsuit if the records were not produced by the end of the week.

Jim Wheaton, a Bay Area attorney representing the group, said in an email the city’s argument was “way off base.”

“Put simply, an agency cannot refuse to comply with the law because some case, somewhere else, involving other parties, might address a legal issue that might affect the obligations that exist under the law,” Wheaton said in the email. “If that were the case, the existence of almost any legal dispute somewhere would excuse compliance everywhere.”

John Mutz, a former candidate for sheriff and spokesman for Sonoma Citizens for Transparency in Government, said he’s disappointed to see Santa Rosa withholding the records after the Sheriff’s Office agreed to make its records public.

“It doesn’t seem like a good-faith position. It just doesn’t,” Mutz said. “It looks like, you know, decades of resistance to being open and being transparent.”

You can reach Staff Writer Andrew Beale at 707-521-5205 or andrew.beale@pressdemocrat.com. This story was produced as part of the California Reporting Project, a collaboration of more than 30 newsrooms across the state to obtain and report on police misconduct and serious use-of-force records unsealed in 2019.

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