Five before Midnight

This site is dedicated to the continuous oversight of the Riverside(CA)Police Department, which was formerly overseen by the state attorney general. This blog will hopefully play that role being free of City Hall's micromanagement.
"The horror of that moment," the King went on, "I shall never, never forget." "You will though," the Queen said, "if you don't make a memorandum of it." --Lewis Carroll


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Location: RiverCity, Inland Empire

Sunday, August 20, 2006

CPRC Watch and Wait

This entry is what is officially referred to as a CPRC request watch for information requested in relation to the shooting of Lee Deante Brown earlier this year.

On July 24, 2006, I submitted a written request under the California Public Records Act to the police department to obtain documents and records in relation to several of the reforms that were to continue after the stipulated judgment was dissolved in March. I also asked for the department's policies and procedures pertaining to both the issuance and usage of tasers by its police officers. In addition to this information, I had requested copies of the training that each officer receives in regards to using tasers as well as statistical information on their usage and how many officers in the department were actually equipped with these devices. Included in the information I had requested with regards to taser training was what measures were taken during this training to avoid the occurrence of "friendly fire" discharges. The department had admitted that there were taser issues arising from the Lee Deante Brown shooting.

Under state law, the department was required to issue a written response either granting the request in full, granting it in part or denying it entirely within 10 days unless it had asked for an extension of time to determine what its response would be.

The CPRA law states:

California Government Code §6256. Any person may receive a copy of any identifiable public record or copy thereof. Upon request, an exact copy shall be provided unless impracticable to do so. Computer data shall be provided in a form determined by the agency.

Each agency, upon any request for a copy of records shall determine within 10 days after the receipt of such request whether to comply with the request and shall immediately notify the person making the request of such determination andthe reasonss thereforeer.

As of Aug. 22, I have not received a response to this written request either in writing or in any other format. Perhaps the written request for public information got lost in the process of its delivery to those who make the decisions of what information is to be released to the public and what information is not. Perhaps it is sitting on a stack of paperwork in an office some where waiting to be addressed. Perhaps it got lost through the mail service on its way back to me.

These possible explanations may be what actually took place in terms of why this CPRA request did not receive a written response. The only problem with them is that this was actually the second request that did not receive a written response from the police department involving several of the same issues.

An earlier request under the CPRA for similar information made last spring pertaining to department issued tasers also failed to elicit any written response from the department. A department representative later said that copies of the requested information including the department's own written policies could not be handed over to me or anyone else until the department had completed its own investigation into the Brown shooting. A shooting investigation by the police department usually takes from about five months to nearly a year to complete so this public information will remain out of the public's hands until after that period of time has passed. Essentially, it could take up to a year to receive even a copy of policies from the police department, pertaining not only to the use of department issued tasers but also addressing how the agency's police officers interface with mentally ill or incapacitated individuals in accordance with any existing policy.

The legal requirement held by the responding agency in terms of denial or delay is also included in this text.

California Government Code §6256.2. Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to permit an agency to delay access for purposes of inspecting public records. Any notification of denial of any request for records shall set forth the names and titles or positions of each person responsible for the denial.

What's funny about this situation involving departmental policies is that only several years ago, the department(upon request of the CPRC and several community members) had donated a volume of its policy and procedure manual to the Riverside City Public Library located in downtown Riverside for public access. All a person visiting the library had to do was remove the thick blue manual with the department's emblem off of the reference shelf and read it to find out for themselves what policies and procedures governed the actions and practices of their public servants. This practice worked for nearly a year, until one day the thick blue binder disappeared from the reference shelf of the library, the official explanation being that it had been returned to the police department to be "updated" to include either new policies or policies that had undergone revision. The blue binder has been missing in action from the library for about three years now.

If you were unable to get to the main library to read this binder, you could also submit a request in writing under the CPRA to obtain a copy of any policy that was included in that manual. In fact, I had received copies of numerous policies from the department using this method without experiencing any problems. Until these two times.

It is odd that no written response has been received from the department involving two CPRA requests made since the Brown shooting. Before this incident occurred, this same department had an excellent record of responding to my CPRA requests in a prompt manner whether it granted the request or not. Many of my requests for information were granted at least in part and several in total. Not many governmental agencies have been as cooperative with CPRA requests as the RPD has been in the past several years and the agency deserves credit for that. So where are the current problems coming from?

Some have opinionated that the problems might not be with the police department at all, but instead lie at the door of the city's risk management division. After all, civil litigation in the form of claims for damages and actual law suits have been filed involving three out of the department's last four fatal critical incidents. The family members of Summer Lane have filed civil litigation agains the city and individuals who are related to both Terry Rabb and Brown have also recently filed claims with the City Attorney's office, in relation to those two incidents. Such claims, which are routinely denied, usually serve as precursors for law suits filed in either federal or state district court. Consequently, thousands of dollars will be spent on attorneys' and court's fees for years and down the line, even more money could be potentially paid out in settlements and through jury verdicts if any of the law suits go to trial and returns with unfavorable results for the city. That happened with one law suit that went to trial in U.S. District Court twice in 1999.

However, true or not, that is neither here nor there, when it comes to the public's right under the state's "sunshine" laws to access public documents even those that may not place the department in the best position if they are released. Without "sunshine laws" and the public's right to access information about their governmental agencies, then it is difficult or even impossible for there to be any meaningful accountability inside those agencies in terms of how they serve the public.

If a department said that it can not give out even copies of its policies that are considered public information, until after a shooting investigation is complete as was said earlier this year, then that action is more indicative of a situation where those decisions are being made in accordance with risk management and fiscal liability concerns. Unfortunately, in situations like this if they occur, every other issue, even those pertaining to the safety of community members and departmental employees comes further down the list of priorities because it is difficult for them to compete with the fiscal reality of a department being sued or potentially sued in relation to a critical incident. The department is not an independent agency, but is under the jurisdiction of the city, including its city attorney's office and risk management divisions and thus must abide by decisions coming out of those departments on how it conducts at least this part of its business. In fact, most if not all of my CPRA requests to the police department have included in the written responses, language indicating that a representative of the city attorney's office, most often Asst. City Attorney Jeb Brown, had provided legal advice on the issue and/or had received a copy of the department's response to my requests.

The way to improve a potential risk management situation is to increase the safety of everyone involved, and addressing any serious problems or safety issues especially any arising from critical incidents. Inviting those with a stake in the process, the department, the city and the community, to have a voice in a process that is as transparent as possible is very important. Doing so allows the public to see that the department is committed to addressing issues and solving any actual or potential problems.

The answer is not to simply become reluctant to disclose personal information because you are worried that the truth might put you in a less than positive light in front of a jury.

For more information on the CPRA, here are some links.

California First Amendment Coalition

Web site with information on California's "sunshine" laws including the Brown Act(public meetings access) and the California Public Records Act.

CPRA law text

The nitty gritty of the CPRA.

CPRA letter template

How to write a CPRA request letter.


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