Requests for a disclosure of the full investigation have resulted in both claims of privilege and claims that it is an ongoing investigation. When the DA wants to release information from ongoing investigations they do so. They released a statement of probable cause and the coroner’s report within a week of the shooting. Why? Because they believe it showed justification from the shooting.
That gets me to the subject of today’s missive, on Wednesday the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department announced that they had concluded their investigation into an incident where a family claims that Sheriff’s Deputies put a gun to a nine-year-old girl’s head.
Reading the Sacramento Bee’s story on this subject, we find some curious quotes and statements.
First, Sheriff Ed Prieto said, “There was absolutely no evidence, not the slightest bit of evidence, that this took place.”
Then in a written statement Captain Rich Williams said, “The investigation proved that the alleged act or acts did not occur. The employees were exonerated of any misconduct.” He said he could not discuss details of the investigation because it involved confidential personnel matters.
First of all, there is a big difference between Ed Prieto’s statement and Rich Williams’ statement. I can believe that they found no evidence that this took place. Actually what I can believe is that it was the word of the Sheriff’s Deputies against the family, and they had no way to corroborate the family’s story independently. That is a far cry from saying the investigation PROVED that the alleged act or acts did not occur.
But let’s say their investigation did prove that they did not occur. Maybe they had a videotape or an audio tape of the search warrant search. Why not release it to the public? If this were a crime against a police officer and they had proof it occurred they sure as heck would release it to the public. They can show evidence of citizen crimes but not of police wrongdoing apparently.
The fact of the matter is that if they had proof this incident did not occur, I have to believe that they would have presented it to the public.
The other part of the issue here is Captain Williams contention that this investigation involves confidential personnel matters and therefore they cannot say anything other than it did not happen. Those type of claims are usually one-directional and often get waived when information comes forth to exonerate the officers. In other words, confidential personnel matters tend to be used as a shield to protect wrongdoers and prevent the public from learning the truth.
We should all be asking ourselves how the question of whether an officer pointed a gun at the head of a nine-year-old girl became a “private” and “confidential” personnel matter. Because to me this is a matter of public policy. Now what happens to the officer as the result of his public actions, I agree is private and confidential, but the act itself is not. There are good reasons for not allowing employees personnel files to be open to the public, but the law enforcement officers get far more protection than typical employees despite the fact that they have generally far greater responsibility.
There are really two explanations as to why police have so much protection and they both come from the same basic source, the powerful lobby of the peace officers in California who have undermined and thwarted public sunshine laws in an effort to keep such matters as quiet as possible and out of the public light.
The worst of these was the Copley Press v. Superior Court decision handed down on August 29, 2006. Prior to that decision, Penal Code 832.7 had prevented the public’s access to citizen complaints held by the agency. According to the ACLU’s explanation, “This meant that internal affairs records were confidential, while records of administrative appeals to outside bodies such as a civil service commission were open to the public. Also, in some jurisdictions independent civilian review boards functioned in public, hearing complaints separately from the police department.”
What the Copley Press decision did was rule “that San Diego Civil Service Commission records on administrative appeals by police officers were confidential because the Civil Service Commission performed a function similar to the police department in the disciplinary process and thereby functioned as the employing agency.”
In essence, this ruling shut off any ability for the public to learn about misconduct involving individual police officers. When the legislature in 2007 tried to restore the ability for review commissions to function, I remember attending the hearings and seeing several hundred uniformed police officers show up to thwart legislative efforts.
Let us get back to this case, because it illustrates the problem. Do you believe that the Sheriff’s Department can conduct a fair investigation into the actions of its own officer?
When Sheriff Ed Prieto responded to allegations on February 22, 2010, he immediately said that he had a hard time believing that these allegations are true. He called them shocking but almost impossible to believe.
When the boss, Sheriff Prieto makes a public statement before the investigation has even begun that he doesn’t believe it happened, what do you expect that his subordinates and other law enforcement officers are going to conclude in a report?
It was obvious from the start that the Sheriff was already inclined toward a given finding. His own words betrayed him.
The Sheriff wants us to accept his word on some sort of faith that a fair and impartial investigation occurred? I say this, if the officers involved did not do what was accused on them, then they have nothing to hide. They can waive their confidentiality clause tomorrow and let us see what “proof” the Sheriff has that this did not occur.
Because frankly that is the only way this thing is going away. I have met and spoken to that little girl, and I do not believe for a second that she is lying. I want to hear an explanation of why she was sick and vomiting if this was simply a non-incident. I want to understand what evidence they have other than the word of other deputies, that “proves” this did not occur.
Otherwise the family has only one avenue of recourse and that is to pursue their lawsuit. They have already filed a government tort claim. Once that is turned down, they can file a lawsuit.
In my opinion, the state law is wrong. The public deserves to know what the law enforcement officers do under the color of law. They have a huge amount of responsibility. They have the legal right to the use of force. They have a legal right to take people into custody. With great power, should come great responsibility and therefore great scrutiny. When law enforcement hides behind confidentiality codes, the public trust gets undermined.
The Sheriff can restore the trust in his department by ordering the release of all evidence in this matter and then we can finally put this matter to rest.
As for the state law, I would like to see our legislature work to change it. The public deserves full transparency of all government actions. It is time for law enforcement to quit hiding behind clauses and legal loopholes. If one acts appropriately, the public will support you. But if one breaches the public trust, the public deserves to know.
—David M. Greenwald reporting