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ACLU files California Public Records Act lawsuit against Fresno Police Department

On December 13, 2017, the ACLU of Northern California filed a California Public Records Act ("CPRA") lawsuit against the Fresno Police Department and the City of Fresno. The petition alleges that the Fresno Police Department has "an ongoing problem with officer-involved shootings and operates within a culture of secrecy" and withheld records related to training. The petition is an excellent piece of public advocacy and, in particular, does a very good job of establishing the public interest in the training records being sought.

Find a link to the petition here: (link opens to a .pdf)

At issue are training records related to (1) use of force and discharge of firearms; (2) taking civilian complaints and investigating civilian complaints; (3) preventing or avoiding discrimination, including based on explicit or implicit, conscious or unconscious bias, when interacting with individuals and communities; (4) interacting with persons with known or suspected mental health issues; and (5) training required as a result of incidents involving use of force or officer-involved shootings. The Fresno PD withheld those records, stating that "disclosure of [such] information ... may compromise officer safety or tactics or interfere with law enforcement," and justified withholding by citing to the investigatory records exemption in Cal. Gov. Code § 6254(f) and that catch-all exemption in Cal. Gov. Code § 6255.

The investigatory records exemption in § 6254(f), in part, exempts from disclosure "records of complaints to, or investigations conducted by, or records of intelligence information or security procedures of ... any state or local police agency." It seems a stretch for training records to be considered a "record of investigation" since the information in training materials presumably are not part of a "targeted inquiry into any particular crime or crimes" See American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Southern California v. Superior Court of Los Angeles County (2017) 3 Cal.5th 1032, 1042. In terms of 6254(f), that leaves Fresno to argue that trainings are "security procedures."

The catch-all exemption in § 6255 permits an agency to withhold a record if it can show that, "on the facts of the particular case, the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record." Here, the ACLU did a very good job of establishing the public interest in disclosure by recounting the Fresno Police Department's history of police shootings and culture of secrecy, stating, "[t]he FPD's lack of transparency deprives Fresno community members of the ability to independently assess the FPD's vague assurances that they are training their officers adequately on important issues like use of force and anti-discrimination." 

The ACLU also did a good job of arguing against the public interest in non-disclosure by including a section on how other police departments–and the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Trainings, the state agency tasked with overseeing the training of police departments–release training records. As such, it looks as though Fresno has an uphill battle in establishing the records are exempt under § 6255.

It will be interesting to follow this case and see how it develops. You can follow the docket on the Fresno Superior Court website by searching for case number 17CECG04266.



Abenicio Cisneros