Times sues L.A. County sheriff over withholding records on deputy misconduct

Alene Tchekmedyian
The Los Angeles Times has filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County, alleging that the Sheriff's Department has repeatedly refused to turn over public records about deputies involved in misconduct or shootings.  (Rick Sforza / Associated Press)

The Los Angeles Times has filed a lawsuit against Los Angeles County, alleging that the Sheriff’s Department has repeatedly refused to turn over public records, including those about deputies involved in misconduct or shootings.

The landmark Senate Bill 1421 undid decades of secrecy 18 months ago by opening up previously confidential records about law enforcement officers involved in shootings or other serious uses of force, as well as those who committed sexual assaults or acts of dishonesty. And yet, the lawsuit says, L.A. County “continues to withhold records” on hundreds of deputies.

“The county and the Sheriff’s Department are just continually refusing to provide access to these important records,” said Kelly Aviles, an attorney representing The Times. “We’ve gotten almost nothing in the 18 months since we’ve filed those requests.”

The Sheriff’s Department did not respond on Tuesday to a request for comment.

A county spokeswoman, however, said in a statement that L.A. County is “committed to fulfilling its responsibilities” under the California Public Records Act.

“Every department — including the Sheriff’s Department — is expected to live up to the transparency that the law requires and the public has a right to expect,” the statement said. “Beyond that, the county does not comment on pending litigation and will not address the specific allegations in this lawsuit.”

On Wednesday, Sheriff Alex Villanueva tweeted a statement he first published last month, saying that the agency is "more transparent than ever before" under his leadership. He blamed delays in SB 1421 compliance on staffing and funding shortages.

"Due to our limited staffing and our lack of SB 1421 specified funding, the fulfillment of SB 1421 compliance has been difficult. We will continue to do the best we can with what we have in place," he said in the statement.

The day that SB 1421 went into effect, The Times submitted various requests for information to the Sheriff's Department.

According to the lawsuit, the Sheriff’s Department improperly denied most of them, saying they were too broad or otherwise exempt. It agreed to produce SB 1421 records only for deputies The Times could identify by name.

But even for the 325 deputies that The Times did identify by name, the county has produced “almost no records,” the lawsuit says.

The department has produced files "for just two deputies and responded that approximately 17 other deputies had no disclosable letters of discipline,” the lawsuit says. “Information about the other more than 300 officers specifically identified by The Times remains undisclosed.”

A number of other requests, including some filed by the reporter of this story, have been ignored or improperly denied, according to the lawsuit.

In October, The Times requested information about promotions within the department, in-custody jail deaths and Villanueva’s daily schedule. No records have been produced, the lawsuit says.

Several months later, the paper requested the daily time sheets of every Sheriff’s Department employee who worked at the department’s Lost Hills station on Jan. 26, the day Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash. That request was denied.

The Times also requested communications that reference the taking or sharing of photos from the crash site by Sheriff’s Department employees, as it was reporting that the agency tried to keep a lid on allegations that deputies shared graphic photos from the scene. No records have been produced.

L.A. County’s chief law enforcement watchdog, the Office of Inspector General, also sought documents — through a subpoena — related to allegations that Villanueva directed the coverup. The Sheriff's Department did not comply.

It’s not the first time The Times has accused the Sheriff's Department of Public Records Act violations.

In 2016, The Times contested exorbitant fees the department tried to charge the paper for emails containing certain racist terms sent, received or forwarded by members of the agency’s command staff.

Two years later, the paper accused officials of refusing to release information about the status of homicide investigations, mundane information such as email addresses for Sheriff’s Department employees and records involving prosecutors and others in the district attorney’s office who have been disciplined for sexual harassment or misconduct.

Just before he took office, Villanueva was quoted in L.A. Taco as saying he would settle one of the cases.

“I think the press has a right to know, and acting on behalf of the public and disseminating information to the public. That’s part of transparency. We have nothing to hide. It’s the public’s information. It doesn’t belong to the department. It belongs to the taxpayers,” he was quoted as saying.

Both lawsuits remain pending.

The Times also intervened last year in cases brought by the Los Angeles Police Protective League and the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, which sought unsuccessfully to keep records related to discipline and serious uses of force before 2019 confidential.