By Carina Corral
In an age when there’s a cell phone in every hand, the actions of law enforcement officers are always under review. But now, for the first time, the official reviews and conclusions of serious incidents involving officers are now public, prompting both concerns and cheers depending on your point of view.
For nearly four decades, the personnel records of California law enforcement were kept under wraps by some of the most strict laws in the nation. In 1976, then-Governor Jerry Brown signed the Peace Officers Bill of Rights, the backbone of law enforcement confidentiality. Fast forward to 2019, when technology is vastly different – surveillance cameras are nearly everywhere including doorbells, and body cams and cellphones are common.
With protests across the nation, including in California, building with every shooting, the cry to lift the veil of secrecy grew louder. On January 1, 2019, Senate Bill 1421 took effect putting a dent in the shield of law enforcement protections.
“I think SB 1421 is going to be a good policy. I think it’s going to show the professionalism of the officers that we have across the nation and that we are addressing those issues of misconduct,” Morro Bay Police Chief Jody Cox said in support of the bill.
The personnel records made public under the bill include if an officer discharges a gun at a person or uses force that results in death or great bodily injury. Records would also be released after a sustained finding was made that a police or custodial officer engaged in sexual assault with a member of the public or conducted in dishonest behavior.
“For the most part, most of the chiefs I’ve talked with really feel that getting that information out there is in our best interest, as well, because we want the public to know we are handling those cases,” Chief Cox said. “We don’t want bad players in here any more than anyone else does and the sooner we can weed them out, the better.”
‘Is SB 1421 retroactive?’
On January 1, 2019, news organizations, including KSBY, made records requests under the new law. It didn’t take long for legal challenges to pop up. At issue is whether the law applies retroactively to cases prior to January 1. In late March, a California appeals court ruled the law is retroactive. Just a few days later, California’s Attorney General disagreed.
AG Xavier Becerra argued the appeals court ruling merely lifted the stay on a lower court decision regarding retroactive disclosure, but it did not rule on the merits of the case.
Central Coast Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, who supported SB 1421, told KSBY News the records should be released.
“It has been said before, and it still rings true, that sunlight is the best disinfectant. As a strong supporter of the First Amendment and supporter of SB 1421, I think the Attorney General of California should follow the law. The AG is the top law enforcement officer in the state and he has a constitutional duty to follow California law,” Cunningham said in an email.
So where does that leave Central Coast law enforcement?
Right in the middle of the disclosure debate.
In San Luis Obispo County, all agencies released records at KSBY’s request. In Santa Barbara County, two agencies – the Santa Maria Police Department and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office – declined to release the records citing the court challenges and the Attorney General’s stance. As of April 29, SMPD reversed course and stated it would comply but has yet to release any records to KSBY.
“The problem with SB 1421 is the way the language was drafted,” said David Mastagni in a statement to KSBY. Mastagni is an attorney based out of Sacramento who represents the following local police unions in legal situations: San Luis Obispo County Probation Peace Officers’ Association, San Luis Obispo County Sworn Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, Paso Robles Police Officers Association, Morro Bay Police Officers Association, Arroyo Grande Police Officers Association, Grover Beach Police Officers Association, and Pismo Beach Police Officers Association.
Mastagni’s main concern regarding SB 1421 is privacy.
“Under SB 1421, information such as post-mortem photos, confidential health information, criminal history (rap sheets), elder and child abuse records, sexual assault victim records, names and images of human trafficking victims and their families can now be made public upon request,” Mastagni’s statement read. “To be clear, my clients favor transparency. Nearly always transparency vindicates law enforcement. Law enforcement wants to protect citizen privacy.”
Under the law, an agency can redact certain confidential information, like the names of witnesses and complainants, personal information of law enforcement officers and medical, financial, or other information that would “cause an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” The law enforcement agenices that released records to KSBY News redacted the names and addresses of victims and witnesses.
A local officer who talked with KSBY News and asked to remain anonymous also expressed concerns about the release of videos of officer-involved shootings. He stated the release of these videos without a litigation process, could potentially taint jury pools as residents “rush to judgment” before getting all the facts, such as how and why officers react and respond when firing their weapons.
Chief Cox said he understands that argument, “You’re getting one version without really understanding all the other components or factors that may be involved in that incident. You see the same thing in the homemade videos. You see cell phone video. You’re only getting one component of that, so it doesn’t tell the full story and I think really waiting until you have all the facts and information to make that judgment is really important.”
‘Investigating the investigations of one of their own’
KSBY News reviewed hundreds of pages of documents from reports we received of officer-involved shootings in both counties from the last five years. In all cases, the actions of the police officers were declared justified by the District Attorneys’ offices.
In all, based on the records released for the past five years, there were a total of 9 officer-involved shootings in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties. This number will rise once the Santa Maria Police Department and Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office release their records.
In San Luis Obispo County, there were a total of 5 – 1 in Arroyo Grande, 1 in Atascadero, 1 in Grover Beach, 1 in Morro Bay, and 1 in San Luis Obispo County, which is the Sheriff’s Office jurisdiction.
In Santa Barbara County, there were 4 in Lompoc, alone.
While all officers were cleared, some internal reviews declared improved protocol and additional tactical training were needed in the department following an officer-involved shooting.
One such case was in Morro Bay in the early morning of October 30, 2015. Officer Dale Cullum made contact with a burglary suspect, who was riding his bicycle. After the suspect, Alec Stephenson, reportedly refused to pull over, the officer used his patrol car to bump the back tire of the bike. Stephenson then got off the bike and charged at Cullum, striking him in the head with a large stick as the officer was trying to get out of his patrol car, according to the internal investigative report.
“(At first), my thought process was that the suspect was going to run from me not toward me,” Officer Cullum said in an interview with KSBY, his first interview since the shooting happened nearly four years ago.
The report states Cullum briefly struggled to get his gun out of his holster but eventually fired his weapon one time injuring Stephenson in the leg. Another officer arriving on scene during the confrontation helped to subdue the suspect after the shooting.
When asked if he would do it again, he replied, “I have a family. Yeah, I have children,” he nodded, “to protect my life. I want to go home.”
The report states, “…we believe that the personnel engaged in this event acted in a competent, responsible manner and the overall result of their actions was a success.” However, it was noted in the report additional training was encouraged for the department stating, “the crux of the problem here is not the level of force used; it is the tactical disadvantage (the officer) placed himself in when exercising the tactic.” It added, “…there is considerable risk of substantial injury to a suspect if under stressful conditions, the officer is unable to adequately control the vehicle when contacting the bicycle.”
The investigation also called for more “weapon familiarity” training. Chief Cox said that is because Officer Cullum’s weapon misfired during the shooting and instead of clearing the weapon at that time, he reholstered the weapon.
“We went from quarterly range training to monthly range training,” Cox said.
While officers may be criminally cleared in an officer-involved shooting, often times civil cases loom. That is the case for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office involving the shooting death of Josue Gallardo, 34, of Paso Robles. Despite the ongoing civil case, via our records request, the SLO County Sheriff’s Office released the dash camera video from the night of the shooting involving two deputies on January 24, 2017. The official reports in this case were released in February under the new law.
In addition to shootings, we found multiple instances in which police officers, deputies or correctional deputies were fired for their conduct in the last five years. They include – 1 San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s deputy, 1 San Luis Obispo County correctional deputy, 3 San Luis Obispo police officers, and 1 Santa Barbara police officer.
To see the details and documents related to each officer-involved shooting and termination, click here.
One additional well-known case on the Central Coast remains cloaked due to a technicality.
Former Paso Robles Police Sergeant Christopher McGuire was accused of multiple sexual assaults; however, he was not charged or prosecuted. He quit the police department before a ‘sustained finding’ report was complete. Without a sustained finding, the SLO County Sheriff’s Office and Paso Robles Police Department declined to release reports relating to McGuire.
- Related coverage: Cunningham-sponsored bill would prevent police from using threat of arrest to commit sexual assault
With the exception of the ‘sustained finding’ issue, it appears personnel records of law enforcement in officer-involved shootings, sexual misconduct or dishonesty cases in most instances will be made public. The question remains whether this look ‘behind the curtain’ will help ease tensions or serve to make matters worse. It depends on who you ask.
“I think if (the public) want(s) to see this stuff and they want to read about it, I think they have a right to it,” Officer Cullum said. “To me, it’s like a car wreck. People slow down because they think they want to see and sometimes what they see is not necessarily what they wanted to see… There’s an interest but once they do witness it, they might second guess themselves.”
It can be difficult for the public to view the video or read the details of these highly charged cases. In the Atascadero shooting, social media users both applauded and criticized KSBY’s reporting on the release of the video and the report of the officer-involved shooting.
One user recently commented on our Facebook post of the shooting, saying, “KSBY should not be sharing such horrible videos on social media. They reported on it when it happened, their job is done.”
Another commenter stated it was helpful to see what happened, saying, “The video removes any doubt that he was treated more than fairly by those officers.”
The author of the bill, Senator Nancy Skinner, told the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, “We give law enforcement officers tremendous power to stop, detain, arrest, and even use force on members of our communities. We, the people, have a fundamental right to know how police use – and abuse – their powers. It’s time we reclaim that right with SB 1421.”
KSBY News remains committed to reporting the great work the majority of law enforcement on the Central Coast are doing and holding those accountable who break the law while wearing the badge.