CA City Destroys 20 Years of Police Records Before New Law Demanded Their Public Release

For decades, the city of Inglewood, California has had a reputation for unethical police shootings by unaccountable law enforcement. That notoriety has today led to comparisons on the level of Chicago, Baltimore and Detroit. 

Following the election of current Mayor James T. Butts Jr., an African-American and the former police chief of Santa Monica, concerned citizens were desperate for a change that was never going to come. Instead of following the suggestions of Campaign Zero, allowing for more culpable police reforms and community oversight powers, the city has instead decided to skirt past a new state transparency law by destroying police records from the last 20 years, according to an investigative report from The LA Times.

The decision was reportedly made during an Inglewood City Council meeting earlier last month which authorized the destruction of more than 100 police records dating back to 1991 before Senate Bill 1421 went into effect on New Years Day. By California law, police departments are now expected to retain all existing records of “officer shootings” and “internal misconduct investigations,” including incidents ranging from sexual assault to potential murder, for at least five years. 

There’d surely be an interesting story amidst all the paperwork, such as the widely cited 2016 shooting in which several officers opened fire on a couple sitting inside a car. According to Vox, this even resulted in several officer firings and calls for the new law’s passage. Local governments can’t hide their secrets behind the excuse of somehow ensuring national security or some authoritarian right to regime privacy. The reason for such destruction, at such a pivotal moment in public transparency, must be rich.

And so it is. Just before the end of the year, the city council resolution approved the Inglewood Police Department’s convenient claim that these records were suddenly “obsolete” which “occupy valuable space” and are “of no further use,” meaning there’s suddenly nothing to see here as the police curiously purged their whole department database before civil liberties advocates could legally review anything. “This premise that there was an intent to beat the clock is ridiculous,” Mayor Butts immediately argued, showing the perfect timing of it all just stinks to high heaven.

“The legislature passed SB 1421 because communities demanded an end to the secrecy cloaking police misconduct and use of force,” declared Marcus Benigno, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, in a statement to the press. “Inglewood PD’s decision to purge records undermines police accountability and transparency against the will of Californians.” He was joined by community activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson who added: “This action sends a terrible message that lack of transparency is still the policy in Inglewood.”

This deception sadly isn’t something new for Inglewood. The LA Times report cites a 2008 incident where the department’s officers fatally shot four citizens, three of who were revealed to be unarmed. This immediately spawned a civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department Of Justice (DOJ) where they reportedly found “significant flaws” in these use-of-force cases. Another civil lawsuit resulted in Inglewood paying a $2.45 million settlement over their handling of the case.

“Three young men who had done absolutely nothing wrong had their lives changed forever. No amount of money will ever bring back Michael Byoune to his family, but hopefully, through his death, the city will make changes that will help all of the citizens of our community,” said Carl Douglas, an attorney representing the victims and their families, declaring intentions for more police transparency efforts. “For that reason, his death will not be in vain.”

Over the past few years, however, citizens seem to continually die in vain from excessive force by local law enforcement. These narratives of unarmed victims has fueled decentralized movements pushing identity politics, such as Black Lives Matter and other racial organizations, whose demands range from genuine reforms of state power and allowing the freedom of information to more radical positions of abolishing the sentences of black criminals as “political prisoners.” 

Whether these violent or racial disparity cases are merited, unfounded or somewhere in the middle ground—all of which have been argued across politics and academia during the Obama and Trump administrations — the public must live with unanswered questions which could at least be debated honestly if they had the facts. The destruction of such documentation, makes such conversation impossible. 

This transparency issue itself isn’t new given California has been a battleground for police transparency since document purges of the 1970s. According to the LA Times, officers from the Los Angeles area hold a notorious reputation for destroying “more than four tons of personnel records rather than allow the information to be used in court.” 

This isn’t to say California isn’t seeing a progressive resistance. In a report from Vox, we’re given an introspective look into two of the laws newly passed under Gov. Jerry Brown (D-CA) aimed at holding police to account, which should have support from everyone from civil rights advocates to those concerned with accountable big government and unethical use-of-force. Senate Bill 1421 is this first measure — allowing the public access to police records. The second is Assembly Bill 748 requiring police departments to release footage of officer-involved shootings within a month of an incident. These are quality measures, but require enforcement to make any difference.

“History in the making,” said state Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), the author of Senate Bill 1421, in a statement from last September. “California is finally joining other states in granting access to the investigatory records on officer conduct that the public truly has a right to know. CA’s secrecy that has prevented public access to any & all police misconduct records about to be lifted. Californians have a right to know when officers are dishonest, use deadly force.”

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