Appeals Court Ruling on ‘Problem Officers’ Puts L.A. Sheriff, Prosecutors Between a Rock and Hard Place
Los Angeles County is poised to become ground zero in a fierce legal battle that is already pitting privacy and government transparency advocates against one another.
The controversy arises from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department which has seen more than its fair share of corruption and misconduct over the years. In an effort to improve transparency, Sheriff Jim McDonnell has collected the names of some 300 deputies with a history of misconduct. He would like to share them with prosecutors who need to track problem officers in case their histories must be disclosed to defendants in criminal trials. But he has been met with resistance from the union that represents the department’s deputies.
Disclosing the names would be a violation of state laws protecting officer personnel files, the union claims, and could result in undue scrutiny of deputies who may have committed indiscretions many years ago.
“We shouldn’t try to cut off their heads for the rest of their lives,” said Elizabeth Gibbons, an attorney for the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs.
Last week, an appeals court agreed and temporarily blocked the Sheriff’s Department from sharing the information for use in prosecutors’ databases. The case could soon be headed for the California Supreme Court.
Law enforcement agencies across the state are watching closely. Some, like the LAPD, have been considering a similar policy for problem officers. In at least a dozen other counties, this practice is already in place.
As experts point out, the practice is not only meant to protect criminal defendants, but victims as well. In cases where past officer misconduct is discovered only after trial, convictions are often thrown out. The ramifications are huge, said San Francisco special assistant district attorney Jerry Coleman.
“They affect not just our relations with police but our relations with victims, and the integrity of the criminal justice system entirely, and the public’s sense of honesty in the proceedings.”