When there are police shootings – they usually make front page news. Any officer involved in a shooting is usually immediately put on administrative leave, and the police department conducts an investigation. Reporters follow up on these stories, but their access is limited. That’s because five years ago, the California Supreme Court decided to bar the public from seeing misconduct allegations filed with police watchdog agencies. The case was called Copley Press v. San Diego.
I spent the past two years looking at the effect of this ruling and how police departments deal with officers involved in multiple shootings. Yesterday, Colorlines Magazine published my story about the state of police oversight in Oakland – a city where shootings by Oakland and BART police have led to civil unrest. The piece article focuses on the story of one officer involved in four high-profile shootings and other instances of misconduct. His behavior has cost Oakland $3.6 million in settlements – and he is still on the police force.
Yesterday, I sat down with KALW’s Hana Baba to talk about the findings of my investigation.
(Transcript after the jump)
HANA BABA: Ali, how did you decide to pursue this story?
ALI WINSTON: I started looking into Copley Press around 2008, when I was investigating an officer-involved shooting in Oakland, which had taken place a year beforehand. A young man named Gary King Jr. was shot and killed by a police sergeant named Patrick Gonzalez, who had mistaken King for a murder suspect. According to witnesses and the court documents that I reviewed, as he tried to flee across the street, King was beaten, tasered, and then shot twice by Gonzalez.
In other states where I’ve worked in investigating an officer’s conduct, I would normally look at the complaint records against him at the local police watchdog. Oakland has such an agency, which is called the Citizens Police Review Board (CPRB). But when I went to CPRB to obtain records on Gonzalez, they told me that all records on individual officers had been deemed confidential in 2006 by the Copley Press decision.
BABA: What was the Copley Press decision? What does it say?
WINSTON: The decision was the result of a San Diego newspaper’s attempt in 2003 to get access to the termination hearing of a sheriff’s deputy at the local civil service commission. The commission denied the newspaper access; the newspapers sued. The suit went all the way through the courts, up to the California Supreme Court, which deemed that the public did not have the right to access personnel or employment information about individual officers. So effectively, it shut down the last window that citizens had into allegations of misconduct against individual officers.
BABA: So that’s the effect on the public – what was in it for the police officers?
WINSTON: Well, it’s pretty simple: the police officers now could have their discipline hearings and their termination hearings in private. Allegations against them would not be aired in public; they’d be done in a confidential setting. Which is strange, when you consider that police officers are public employees, and complaints against lawyers and doctors are available – even if they work for themselves, in the private sector.
BABA: How does this lack of oversight relate to police shootings?
WINSTON: Studies commissioned in the aftermath of the Rodney King beating – which was carried out by members of the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department – have showed that a small number of officers tend to be responsible for a high percentage of a given department’s usage of force incidents. And that those consistently involved in lower-level misconduct incidents have a higher propensity for getting involved in police shootings. It’s important to note that most police officers never fire their weapon in the course of their career.
Before the Copley decision, the public had a right to access complaints that were filed with review agencies about low-level instances of misconduct. That’s still possible in other states that don’t have such restrictive laws, but in California that’s not possible anymore.
This link – between lower-level misconduct incidents and officer shootings – was key for my research. When I looked at the Oakland Police Department, I found that 16 officers had been involved in more than one shooting over the past decade – including 11 who are still Oakland police officers. These officers accounted for about half of all the office-involved shootings that had taken place in Oakland during this time. Three officers had been involved in more than four shootings in the course of their career, and one of those is Sergeant Patrick Gonzalez – who had shot King and who led me on to Copley Press in the first place.
BABA: So Ali, let’s bring this back to Sergeant Gonzalez’s case, which you were following. What did you find?
WINSTON: Sergeant Gonzalez is an officer who’s been assigned to high-risk patrol and special operations duties throughout his entire career: from his time working in a high crime area in East Oakland to his promotion to sergeant; as the head of a crime suppression team in North Oakland; and lastly, to his service on Oakland’s SWAT team. He’s been repeatedly accused of beating and publicly strip-searching subjects – that’s something I found in documents from pre-Copley CPRB complaints, and from civil court filings. He was also the lead sergeant in charge of the bloody pursuit of Lovelle Mixon, who two years ago killed four police officers and was later shot to death by Gonzalez. So this officer has a highly questionable history of uses of force, and yet he continued to serve as a field officer until the Mixon tragedy…
BABA: In which he essentially ended this bloody spree against Oakland police officers. He was considered a hero.
WINSTON: That’s right – he was shot in the pursuit of Mixon, and he fired the shots that fatally wounded that suspect. But, at the same time, there were problems found by an independent review board in the wake of the Mixon tragedy, which identify key decisions that Gonzalez made – such as the one to go back into the apartment after one of the his sergeants had already been shot – as not the best decision to have made at the time.
BABA: So now we’re five years on from Copley, and complaints against officers since then are confidential. How would we find out about the behavior of other officers hired since then?
WINSTON: The route through the independent watchdog is closed; the CPRB can’t release their records on individual officers anymore. But you can file civil lawsuits, or look up an officer’s name in civil courts, to see whether he’s been accused of misconduct. However, civil lawsuits are costly. Garry King Jr.’s family settled for $1.5 million with the City of Oakland, as a result of their wrongful death suit against the city and Officer Gonzalez. And just recently, the family of Derrick Jones, a 37-year-old barber who was shot and killed by two officers last November, filed a $10 million claim against the city of Oakland.
BABA: How can disciplinary documents be made public? Is there a way to reverse Copley? Should it be reversed?
WINSTON: Some legislators did think so, right after the decision was handed down – and in 2007, they attempted to pass a bill that would’ve rolled back the exemptions on releasing individual officer complaints from the civilian review boards. But that failed in the legislature, and there hasn’t been another attempt to do so since.
The police unions and the prison guard unions view this decision as a major victory. They fought long and hard against civilian review and they’re determined to hold onto it.