For decades, the law had ensured that California police misconduct records would be preserved, while also making it nearly impossible for anyone to access them. According to the Los Angeles Times, beginning around the 1970s, California slowly started becoming one of the most secretive states. Only recently have things started to change.
On Jan. 1, Senate Bill 1421 went into effect, which requires public disclosure of all police misconduct documents. To make the most of this opportunity, 39 California newsrooms (and counting) banded together to form the California Reporting Project, which include the likes of the Bay Area News Group, Los Angeles Times, KPPC and KQED. The idea was to team up and request as many documents as possible.
The project seems to have come together quickly and suddenly as Megan Garvey, managing editor for Southern California Public Radio, recalled. It started with a call from KQED just about a month before the bill went into effect.
The collaboration involves regular phone calls to each other and uploading all the requests that have been made. Once the records have been obtained, they are placed into a cloud-based shared space so all newsroom partners can access them. According to Garvey, 1,350 requests so far have been made to state and regional agencies in all 58 counties.
Currently, the newsrooms are mainly focusing their energy on requesting documents and obtaining them. “Many police unions have rushed into court to try and stop the release of records arguing that any incident that occurred before the law took effect should not be made public,” Jack Leonard, LA Times metro investigative editor, said.
Fortunately, the project has had more wins than losses so far.
If something truly newsworthy is found in the documents, then a story is written right away. As of press time, there have been 54 published stories, although Garvey believes there might be more out there.
Both Garvey and Leonard said stories are not currently being shared between news organizations or being collaborated on, but they hope that they can ultimately work together to thoroughly investigate cases and complete write-ups.
“It’s a strange experience to tell my competitors what we’re doing, but it also feels pretty good,” Leonard said. “(By) banding together, we’ll be able to get the most thorough look at what this aspect of policing is really like in California. How have agencies, disciplined police officers who have committed misconduct, serious misconduct while on the job, and how do they vet officers who use deadly force?”