A new transparency law is bogged down in legal wrangling ...  

Ada Fisher died last Friday.

She would have had her 100th birthday on July 6.

She served her country as a military cryptographer in both WWII and the Korean War.

A cryptographer, by the way, is a code breaker.

On her birthday last year I gave her a birthday card written in code. 

She laughed.

I'm pretty sure she broke the code and laughed again by the time I had walked from her front door to my car. 

She was a remarkable woman and part of "The Greatest Generation."

•••

I had a moment of anxiety when I looked over today's city council agenda and saw more city documents were scheduled to be destroyed. But when I looked over the list of documents and saw nothing of interest, I ate a Snickers candy bar and relaxed. 

Cities, nearly all businesses and many people shred documents on a regular basis. The federal, state and county governments require many kinds of documents to be kept for a certain number of years. Before digital archiving those kinds of documents would pile up so fast and take up so much space many businesses and I suspect quite a few cities rented storage facilities for them.

So, just as soon they can, as soon as the law permits, cities like Sanger get rid of those old files.  

There are some old files I don't want them to get rid of just yet.

The Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act have given journalists and private citizens a way to access most documents generated by public agencies. Most documents.

But, until January of this year, not records kept by law enforcement agencies about officer misconduct or officer involved shootings or beatings. 

In 2015, when the Herald was looking into an officer involved shooting, Jeanine Fiser wrote, “In California, if a doctor receives discipline for mistreating a patient, it becomes public record. If a teacher receives discipline for abusing a student, it becomes public record. If a government employee receives discipline for malfeasance, it becomes public record. But if a police officer is disciplined for anything – including killing or wounding a citizen – state law specifically allows the action to be kept private from the public. In fact, under California codes many police records are confidential or severely restricted, including disciplinary matters, investigative records and complaints.”

Because of that veil of secrecy that existed until this year many questions about an officer-involved shooting in Sanger that left Charles Salinas dead in June of 2012 have gone unanswered. 

However, as the Los Angeles Times put it in a Sept. 18, 2018 story, “Endorsing a dramatic departure from decades of secrecy surrounding policing in the state, California lawmakers have moved to undo some of the nation’s strictest rules keeping law enforcement records confidential, particularly involving officer killings of civilians. Legislators approved two landmark measures, one that would give the public access to internal investigations of police shootings statewide, and another that would allow the release of body camera footage of those incidents.”

The new state law, endorsed by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, went into effect on Jan. 1, 2019. 

It was immediately challenged by the San Bernardino Police Union trying to keep the new state law from being retroactive. The California Supreme Court denied the request. So, all existing records fitting the criteria for disclosure under the new Penal Code § 832.7(b) are now in play, including those from 2012   when the Herald was told separate investigations were conducted by the Sanger police and the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office. But those records were not available to the Herald at the time. 

In spite of the many restrictions she faced, Jeanine’s story in the Herald, “Still wondering why shots were fired” won top investigative story honors at regional, state and national levels. 

Maybe, finally with access to those investigative records from Sanger and from the sheriff's office we can finally answer Jeanine’s question about why those shots were fired. Let me be clear, we are not accusing anyone of misconduct. We are simply doing what we believe is our duty, to examine how our public employees conduct themselves – especially in a case that involves a human life.

We're also curious about how the incident was investigated and why the outcome of the investigation was not revealed by the sheriff's office until numerous queries had been made by the Herald. 

We've waited this long to see how challenges to the new law would be dealt with by the courts - including the most recent challenge by Fresno PD, before filing requests to obtain documents involved in the investigation. 

Courts in most cases have upheld the new law. But it, to some extent, is still bogged down in legal wrangling. I'm certain that when the courts have sorted out and dealt with all the challenges the long needed transparency law will takes its place alongside the California Public Records and the Freedom of Information acts. 

The biggest  problem I see is that if too much time passes the records from incidents several years ago could be legally destroyed.

Maybe that's one of the purposes of all the wrangling. So, the Herald will probably go ahead and file the requests, wrangling or not, and, if necessary, let the courts sort that one out too. 

The citizens of Sanger have the right to know what happened.

Please direct your questions or comments to sangerherald@gmail.com

 

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