Floodgates open on records from internal police investigations

FRESNO, Calif. (KFSN) -- The floodgates are open for previously private records on internal police investigations.

An Action News investigation reveals the first records coming in, and a big catch that means a lot of police agencies won't release records of misconduct.

A new level of transparency arrived in California on January 1.

SB-1421 required police to release records from internal investigations into use of force and sustained findings of sexual assault and other misconduct.

"The public will now be entitled to the results of the investigation and the process of the investigation," said legal analyst Tony Capozzi. "They will see the good, the bad, the ugly."

We immediately filed dozens of requests with several agencies but had to wait for courts to rule on the law before police agencies released any records.

The city of Fresno broke the silence with a massive file on a 2012 shooting -- 960 pages of documents and 31 audio files.

"It sounded like gunshots going through a window," said a witness in one of those audio files.

Witness interviews with internal affairs investigators described the moments before and after six officers shot and killed Eli Monge.

"He started to lift the gun and at that point, the officers - as best as I can remember -- they either said 'gun' or 'shotgun' and they fired," said another witness.

Friends believe the National Guardsman wanted to commit suicide by cop when he started shooting in the neighborhood. He even called 911 himself.

Police chief Jerry Dyer says officers are now trained in crisis intervention, but sometimes there's nothing they can do but shoot.

"We can train our officers," he said. "We can contain the area, establish negotiations, and minimize the use of deadly force, but when a person chooses to point a firearm at an officer or a citizen, the officers have to respond."

SB-1421 means the public gets to hear the officers describe the use of force in their own words, and see how their peers investigate those shootings.

"I don't see that as a bad thing," Dyer said. "I think the more information we can provide to the community about how we operate and why decisions are made. I really think it's better. I don't think the release of these officer-involved shootings are going to create any type of chilling effect on officers."

But SB-1421 doesn't force police to reveal everything.

For instance, the CHP told us it has no records of dishonesty by former assistant chief Kyle Scarber, who pleaded guilty to a criminal conspiracy. Fresno County sheriff's deputies accused him of filing a fake missing persons report to cover up that his wife had taken their son to Mexico to avoid a rape conviction.

And the sheriff's office said it has no files on Sgt. Ron Vaughn, Jr., who was convicted of possessing child pornography long after he left the child sex crimes unit.

The law requires agencies to release records only on sustained findings, and if officers resign before they're fired, the findings are not considered sustained, so the records can stay secret.

For now.

Action News will attempt to post all the files we receive from SB-1421 public records requests.

If you have any suggestions for requests or notice anything interesting in the files, contact Corin Hoggard at corin.hoggard@abc.com.
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