Sheriff’s union loses bid to block release of disciplinary files
By Tony Saavedra
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An Orange County Superior Court judge has rejected an attempt by the union representing sheriff’s deputies to block the release of disciplinary records under a new state police transparency law. Judge Nathan Scott ruled Thursday that public accountability trumped the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs’ fight to protect the privacy of its members. Scott, however, let stand the seal on personnel documents until March 15 to give the association time to file an appeal.
“‘Openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy,” Scott said in his ruling. “Implicit in the democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files.” Across the state, courts are ruling against police unions who contend the new law does not apply to events that occurred before Jan. 1, when the statute took effect. At least two police groups have filed appeals.
The law, Senate Bill 1421 by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, requires that files dealing with the use by police of deadly force and confirmed cases of sexual assault and dishonesty must be made public upon request — shattering police secrecy laws in force for more than 40 years.
In Orange County, the battle against the union was funded by the Los
Angeles Times, the Voice of OC online newsroom and Southern California Public Radio.
Lawyer Kelly Aviles, representing the media, said Thursday that Judge Scott understood the issues, like other judges in Los Angeles and Contra Costa counties. “We’re hoping the AOCDS realizes the lack of merit of their lawsuit and will stop fighting the disclosure of these important records,” Aviles said.
Tom Dominguez, union president, said the association is “disappointed in the court ruling” and flatly disagrees with it. “Orange County peace officers don’t forfeit their constitutional rights when they pin on a badge,” Dominguez said.
Many police agencies are withholding documents, waiting to see the outcome of the court challenges. But some records are dribbling out from other departments that are not waiting. Those records reveal some police officers have been fired or encouraged to resign for such things as sexually assaulting dispatchers, having sex with an underage waitress, having intimate contact with a homeless woman and selling police shoulder patches on eBay.