Decades of Police Misconduct Files Destroyed in California

Several California cities shredded important police misconduct records before a landmark state transparency law went into effect in early January. The new law requires records of police misconduct and use of force to be available to the public. At least two local police departments opted to destroy records just before the law went into effect. The measure, SB1421, was signed into law in September and allows the public to view police records on sexual assault cases, officer-involved shootings, incidents during which officers lied while on duty, and other use-of-force incidents.

In December, the Southern California city of Inglewood approved the destruction of more than 100 police records dating back to 1991, according to Vox. The city council approved the purging of records that had been kept longer than the five years mandated by law, the Associated Press (AP) reported. Inglewood officials said the document destruction was part of a routine purging of records that are “obsolete, occupy valuable space, and 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, according to Vox. Civil liberties groups said Inglewood’s timing was suspect. “The legislature passed (the law) because communities demanded an end to the secrecy cloaking police misconduct and use of force,” Marcus Benigno, a spokesperson for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Southern California, said in a statement, the AP reported. Benigno continued, “Inglewood PD’s decision to purge records undermines police accountability and transparency against the will of Californians.”

But Inglewood was not the only California city to purge police records just as the law took effect. In late 2018, the Northern California city of Fremont quietly destroyed a decades-long archive of police records, according to The Appeal. Geneva Bosques, the public information officer for the Fremont Police Department, told The North Star that headlines about the destruction of police documents were misleading and had nothing to do with the law.

“We found a single box of old records that had been misfiled and purged them last year,” she said in an email. “The files were from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, and none of them would have been responsive under SB1421. We regularly purge records per our retention policy and most records from this era were purged decades ago.”

In a statement to The Appeal, Bosques said that the department’s document purge was prompted by a 2016 records review. “In 2016, the police department initiated a review of the records we had in our possession to include but not limited to police reports, personnel records, officer involved shootings and internal affairs investigations.” No comments were made about why the police department opted to continue reviewing those records for the purge, despite the new law shortly coming into effect.

According to the AP, police departments have a long history of destroying records in a bid to avoid oversight. The Los Angeles Police Department purged more than four tons of personnel records in the 1970s when attorneys began to request them for criminal complaints against their clients.

In 1978, the California state legislature ordered police departments to preserve records but made it very difficult for members of the public to gain access to those documents. The new transparency law aimed to do away with the ‘70s era legislation.

Former Governor Jerry Brown enacted Assembly Bill 748 in a bid to increase police transparency. The law mandates police departments to release footage of officer-involved shootings and other use-of-force incidents within 45 days. Police departments can have more time to release the footage if doing so would affect an ongoing investigation.

About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various venues, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.