KQED Secures a Major Legal Victory for Police Misconduct Accountability
KQED, the public media station serving Northern California, recently secured a major legal victory for police accountability when the California Court of Appeal, First Appellate District in San Francisco ruled that the state Attorney General may not categorically withhold records that involve law enforcement officers who engaged in harmful or unlawful conduct.
The ruling is part of KQED and the First Amendment Coalition’s four year-long California Public Records Act lawsuit against California’s Attorney General to ensure access to police use-of-force records made available under the landmark 2019 law SB 1421, better known as the “Right to Know Act". The Attorney General contended that the state department of justice could withhold all police misconduct records collected under subpoena during investigations of local police departments, sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies.
The appellate opinion is the second time in the past three years that KQED and the First Amendment Coalition have successfully enforced the Right to Know Act and forced California’s Attorney General to release thousands of records of misconduct by law enforcement officers across California. The earlier 2020 Court of Appeal ruling was Becerra v. Superior Court, 44 Cal. App. 5th 897. In other public records litigation, KQED successfully forced the disclosure of thousands of police misconduct records from the California Highway Patrol and BART. KQED’s public records lawsuit for a large volume of records being withheld by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation remains ongoing.
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KQED’s most recent appellate win, led by KQED’s attorneys Thomas R. Burke and Sarah E. Burns of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, involved access to records associated with the Attorney General’s 2016 investigation into reports alleging excessive force and other serious misconduct by the Bakersfield Police Department. The Attorney General contended that these records were categorically exempt from public disclosure because they were obtained using the Attorney General’s subpoena powers. The Court of Appeal rejected the Attorney General’s argument. As a result, the public may soon learn more about the Attorney General’s investigation into the Bakersfield Police Department, as well as other ongoing civil rights investigations related to the Vallejo Police Department and other investigations that the Attorney General conducts across the state.
“This ruling allows the public much greater oversight into the Attorney General’s investigation of police misconduct investigations across California,” said Burke. “It’s a much needed measure to ensure that the State’s top law enforcement officer is complying with the Right to Know Law.”
“We are grateful for the court’s decision to uphold transparency of these records in the public interest,” added Holly Kernan, KQED Chief Content Officer. “Abuse of force and misconduct by police remains an ongoing issue that affects our communities deeply. We will continue to work to ensure that these records remain accessible per the law, so that we and other media organizations can expose and explore these investigations in the interests of our communities.”
The California Court of Appeal’s December 28, 2023 ruling can be seen here.
As a result of access to records made possible by the Right to Know Act, KQED has since been able to report on numerous police misconduct cases from throughout the state. KQED’s podcast series On Our Watch launched in 2019 to highlight findings from journalists obtaining thousands of internal police investigations that would have otherwise been kept out of public view. The second season of the series launched this week, and it traces the footsteps of two whistleblowers in an elite investigative unit in California’s most dangerous prison.
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