Advocates of government transparency and a free press scored a victory on April 2, after a state judge ruled that the Oakland Police Department is required to hand over reports, requested by journalists through the Public Records Act, detailing years of internal investigations of police shootings, use-of-force incidents, and officer misconduct involving dishonesty and sexual assault.
The ruling was the culmination of a lawsuit filed in August 2020 by two journalists—Ali Winston and The Oaklandside’s news editor, Darwin BondGraham—against the city of Oakland for failing to produce documents in accordance with state and local transparency laws. I sat down with BondGraham to learn more about the genesis of the lawsuit, where it fits into the broader fight for police accountability and transparency, and what the judge’s decision means for journalists in Oakland, and beyond.
Last week’s ruling comes more than two years after you filed Public Records Act requests with the city of Oakland for dozens of previously confidential police files. Take us back to that time. What prompted you to ask for these records?
In response to years of Black Lives Matter protests and pressure put on the state legislature by the families of people killed by police, in 2018 State Senator Nancy Skinner wrote Senate Bill 1421, which required police and sheriff’s departments to make public certain disciplinary records and investigations of police-involved shootings. Gov. Jerry Brown signed this bill into law and on January 1, 2019, it went into effect.
My colleague Ali Winston and I were among the many journalists up and down the state who had been waiting years for this to happen. The new rules meant that, for the first time in many decades, reporters and the public would get to see previously secret records showing how police departments investigate themselves when officers use deadly force, when officers were found to have lied, or engaged in sexual misconduct. All of those internal documents now had to be made public.
So pretty much immediately after Gov. Brown signed that bill into law, I filed over 30 Public Records Act requests with the city of Oakland seeking case files for specific controversial police shootings and scandals, including the well known Riders case and more recent examples of misconduct like the Celeste Guap sexual exploitation case. One goal was to learn more about these incidents, but the bigger purpose was to see how OPD was going about holding its officers accountable—or not. In addition to being helpful for my own local reporting for The Oaklandside, Ali and I have been working on a book about OPD’s long and arduous reform process, and we knew these documents and tapes would be invaluable.
Unfortunately, the city didn’t respond to our requests in a reasonable timeframe. We were given records for only a handful of the cases we asked about, and many of the documents handed over weren’t the core materials a police investigation is made up of. Frustrated with the very slow pace of the city, we filed a lawsuit to enforce the Public Records Act.
In the end, the judge ruled squarely in your favor and gave OPD little to no wiggle room when it comes to complying with state transparency laws for police. Were you surprised at all by the decision?
I wasn’t surprised. Oakland doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to government transparency, and the city has a huge backlog of Public Records Act requests. At last week’s hearing, the city attorney’s main argument to the state judge was that the city doesn’t have enough money, staff, and time to respond to requests like the ones we submitted. But that’s not a strong legal argument. There’s no section of state law that says a city can choose not to budget enough staff to process these requests and then indefinitely postpone handing over public records. The state law is very clear: Cities have a duty to promptly search for and produce records in response to Public Records Act requests.
In this case, I think the judge recognized that Oakland had given us very little since we first filed our requests, and that at the pace the city was going it would be many, many years before they gave us everything we are legally entitled to. He determined that the city is obligated to provide us with the records we requested, and set out a reasonable timeline for OPD to start producing them.
What is that reasonable timeline? And will the ruling apply to all Public Records Requests, or just those pertaining to police misconduct?
The judge’s order in our case determined that Oakland has to respond to Public Records Act requests “promptly,” and that the word prompt doesn’t mean over many years, as the city was arguing. In fact, the judge ruled that the city must hand over all of the documents we requested within six months, in two-week intervals. We certainly feel that this is the correct interpretation of the law, which applies to all public records.
It sounds then like you’re anticipating a flood of documents. Which ones are you most looking forward to finally seeing?
We’re expecting to receive the first set of records toward the end of April and continuing every two weeks for the next six months. It will be a lot to digest, but we’re ready for it.
In the mid-2000s, there was a series of very controversial officer-involved shootings in Oakland, resulting in the killing of people like Gary King, Albert Woodfox, and Derrick Jones. In recent years, OPD has managed to put in place policies that have greatly reduced the number of fatal police shootings. We’re looking forward to seeing in new detail how the department investigated these shootings.
From a practical standpoint, how will the decision impact your reporting and the work of other journalists in Oakland? Just how big of a win was this for local journalism?
My colleague Ali and I have already obtained important public records as a result of this litigation. Even before the judge issued his order, our attorney Sam Ferguson had been meeting and conferring with the city attorney, and the city was slowly handing over files for a handful of our requests.
In one of these cases, we obtained discipline records from eight years ago that revealed for the first time that the police officer who shot and killed Alan Blueford in 2012 was not cleared for wrongdoing, as had been previously reported. In fact, the officer was suspended by OPD because his tactics and actions leading up to the fatal shooting were clear violations of police policy. We expect to find other important pieces of information in these files that give the public, and families like the Bluefords, a more complete picture of what happened to their loved ones.
In terms of local journalism, the ruling in our case is significant. Hopefully it’s a sign that an even larger class action lawsuit brought by other journalists including Scott Morris, Brian Krans, Sarah Belle Lin, researcher Mike Katz-Lacabe, and the group Oakland Privacy will succeed in changing Oakland’s policies and practices in the long-run.
Even with this ruling, are there glaring holes in state and local transparency policies that still need to be addressed?
Senate Bill 1421 was a game-changer, but it’s obvious that many law enforcement agencies weren’t going to comply with the law without a fight. The litigations brought by journalists and First Amendment attorneys across the state have helped address that problem.
But there’s a vast array of police misconduct files that are still treated as confidential. For example, an officer can be found to have engaged in racist speech or conduct, but it’s not clearly a record the public has a right to see. Senator Nancy Skinner drafted and introduced a bill late last year that, if enacted, would ensure these kinds of records are disclosed, and more.
Journalists and advocates in California and across the country have long fought with local police departments to attain greater transparency. What are the implications of this decision beyond Oakland?
It’s important too to put our lawsuit in context: Many other journalists in California have filed similar lawsuits against law enforcement agencies who’ve engaged in foot-dragging or have simply chosen to not comply with SB 1421. Journalists have sued the city of San Jose and the California Highway Patrol, and joined with civil rights groups in efforts to beat back a legal challenge to SB 1421 brought two years ago by police unions in Contra Costa County. The Los Angeles Sheriff and Sacramento Sheriff have both been sued by newspapers for refusing to hand over files. Even the Attorney General of California was sued by journalists because his office failed to hand over records.
Our lawsuit against Oakland was a tiny contribution to this larger legal effort to enforce these government transparency laws and freedom of the press.