City Improperly Redacted Peace Officer Records

CATEGORY: Law Enforcement Briefing Room
CLIENT TYPE: Public Safety
DATE: Dec 07, 2023

Two Oakland journalists filed 29 public record requests for information regarding several Oakland police officers who had sex with the same minor.  The Oakland Police Department provided the journalists a 252-page redacted report regarding the internal investigation of that incident.  The journalists challenged the redactions in court via a writ of mandate.  Specifically, they argued that:  1) the trial court erred in permitting certain redactions under Penal Code Sections 837.2(b)(4) and (b)(5); 2) police officers who witness misconduct may not have their names redacted under Penal Code Sections 837.2(b)(6)(B); and 3)  former Government Code Section 6254(f) does not permit redaction.

Regarding their first argument, the California Court of Appeal agreed that the trial court improperly permitted certain redactions, including the report’s:  training and policy recommendations; witness statements containing general information about the minor and her social-media use; screenshots of the minor’s Facebook page; and large portions of the minor’s statements to investigators.  That information did not qualify for redaction under Penal Code Section 832.7(b)(5).  That section allows an agency to withhold a record, but not information within a record.  Moreover, because the entire report was a single investigation, no part of it was a ‘record from a separate and prior investigation or assessment’ as exempted from disclosure under Penal Code Section 832.7(b)(4).  The fact that the investigation included allegations of misconduct against multiple officers, or that it investigated multiple incidents of potential misconduct, “does not transform the report into a ‘compilation’ of records for the purposes of Penal Code Section 832.7(b)(4).  Accordingly, all redactions based on these grounds were improper.

As to the second argument, the Court of Appeal again agreed with the journalists that police officer witnesses to misconduct cannot have their names redacted under Penal Code Section 837.2(b)(6)(B), nor Government Code Section 6254(f). Penal Code Section 837.2(b)(6)(B) provides that an agency shall redact a record in order to preserve the anonymity of witnesses.  In their disclosed report, the City redacted pages that listed numerous officers and discussed whether they were found to credible and whether their statements were consistent with the evidence.  Similarly, officer interview summaries were also redacted, but the summaries did not contain anything that could be fairly described as one officer witnessing another’s misconduct.  Accordingly, the redactions under these sections were also deemed improper.

Finally, Government Code Section 6254(f), now recodified as Government Code Section 7923.600, exempts from disclosure “records of complaints to, or investigations conducted by… any state or local police agency.”  But, Penal Code Section 832.7(b)(1) expressly states that, despite Gov. Code 7923.600(a), or any other law, certain peace officer personnel records shall not be confidential and shall be made available for public inspection.  The Court agreed with the journalists that the information at issue in this case was covered under the records to be made available for public inspection, and the City did not oppose such arguments.  Therefore, the Court concluded the redactions were improper under this basis as well.

Bondgraham v. Superior Court (City of Oakland), 95 Cal. App. 5th 1006 (2023).

Key Takeaway:  This case is a primer as to permissible redactions to certain peace officer records that are subject to public disclosure.

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