Central Coast law enforcement agencies slow to provide public records

Mar 21, 2019

On New Year's Day, 2019, a new state law went into effect. SB 1421 insists that California police departments let the public see formerly-confidential misconduct records. Since then, more than 35 California newspapers and public radio stations—including KCBX—have joined forces to request those records. 

After the new police records transparency law took effect, KCBX News filed public records requests (PRAs) with five Central Coast law enforcement agencies: the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office and District Attorney's Office, and the police departments in Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria. The newsroom asked for personnel records, ranging from 2014 to 2018, for officers found to have committed sexual assault, used force which caused great bodily injury or death, or engaged in dishonesty-related conduct.

As of March 20, KCBX News has received documents from just one of those agencies—the San Luis Obispo Police Department.

Within a week of receiving the public records request, San Luis Obispo city attorney Christine Dietrich replied the police department does not have any “responsive records”—documents that fit within the scope of a request—of former or current peace officers who committed sexual assault or a use of force which caused great bodily injury or death. However, Dietrich did say the city has records of former police officers who engaged in dishonesty-related conduct.

These included the case of an officer who attempted to illegally transport pills across the Mexico border in 2009 and an officer arrested for extortion, alleged to have forced informants to provide him with heroin in 2013.  In all, the city of San Luis Obispo provided KCBX with 21 responsive documents relating to the cases of four former police officers, and two police reports dating back to 2003 and 1992. All documents were publically made available online by the city

On January 9, the city of Paso Robles also responded to KCBX News’ PRA request, stating it has no responsive records at all. Asked for clarification, in an email, Mary Sponhaltz, Paso Robles police department’s dispatch and records supervisor, wrote, “we have no sustained findings that a peace officer employed by the Paso Robles Police Department committed sexual assault or dishonesty-related misconduct between January 1, 2014 and December 31, 2018. We also have not had any incidents between January 1, 2014 to the present relating to the use of force by a peace officer or custodial officer resulting in great bodily injury or death.”

When pressed why the department didn’t return any documents relating to the investigation of Christopher McGuire, the former Paso Robles police officer accused of alleged rape and abuse of power as detailed in a SLO County Sheriff Office report leaked to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, Sponhaltz said, “the city’s internal investigation trailed the criminal investigation conducted by the SLO County Sheriff’s Department (which is common due to the nature and priority of criminal matters). Christopher McGuire resigned before the city could complete its internal investigation, which was then closed. As such, there was no investigation and no findings by PRPD.”

Three days after receiving a PRA request sent to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office, county attorney Rita Neal informed KCBX News that the Sheriff’s Office needed a 14-day extension to respond to the request,

“due to the need to: (1) search for and collect the requested records from field facilities or other establishments that are separate from the office processing the request; (2) search for, collect, and appropriately examine what may potentially be a voluminous amount of separate and distinct records that are demanded in your request; (3) consult with another agency having substantial interest in the subject matter of the request; and (4) compile data or write or purchase software programming to extract data.”

Neal said the Sheriff’s Office would be back in touch by January 24. On January 28, Kati Porter, the Sheriff’s Office records manager, wrote to say her office found, “two sustained incidents responsive to records of dishonesty-related misconduct and no sustained incidents of sexual assault,” in addition to, “one incident in which the use of force by a peace officer resulted in death.” However, Porter said it may take approximately six months to make these records available.

Porter wrote her office had purchased software to make the “necessary and required” redactions to audio and video footage, and expected to be able to provide those particular files by March 28.

Porter added the sheriff’s office only has two people assigned to comb through over “800 pages of records that will require redaction,” in order to respond to 15 PRA requests made since January 1. Requestors will get their records on essentially a “first come, first served” basis, said Porter.

In early March, KCBX News was advised to expect some type of data delivery on March 21.

The Santa Maria Police Department returned an answer two weeks after receiving its PRA, saying it has determined “it will have responsive records.” But, that it would take time. 

“The city of Santa Maria takes the public’s right to transparency seriously and regrets any delays that may occur,” wrote Santa Maria assistant city attorney Jeffrey Patrick.

Further communications from Santa Maria promise to provide updates as soon as possible, but that because “the request is for documents that have never before been requested,” it’s taking city staff longer than anticipated.

As for the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office, on January 9, county counsel Rita Neal advised that the DA’s office would be taking a 14-day extension to provide a response. On January 27, Assistant District Attorney Eric Dobroth contacted the newsroom, saying he’s responsible for PRA requests and that he had located “one instance of an in-house sustained finding of dishonesty-related conduct by a District Attorney Investigator in 2014/2015.” Dobroth said he would send the necessary documents and information as soon as possible.

In an email on February 15, county counsel office staff said, according to Dobroth, the DA’s Office has one case relevant to KCBX News’ PRA request regarding “one peace officer, which consist of approximately 150 pages of records, which required the redaction of certain information."

As of March 21, the SLO County DA’s Office has not provided those records.