Police misconduct surfaces in reports under new state law

Early on a Thursday in 2021, San Diego police officers were searching a business in the community of El Cerrito for gambling suspects. Brandon Woodward, then a sergeant, was supervising.

A Latino woman was found inside. As an officer moved to put her in handcuffs, he passed in front of a police dog.

“You’re gonna get bit,” Woodward said to the officer, who is white. Then Woodward added, “[The dog] only likes dark meat.”

A nearby acting sergeant heard Woodward’s comment and reported it, describing the phrase as inappropriate and racist, according to police records.

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Woodward had committed racial discrimination, investigators concluded. Records of the incident show he was suspended for eight days and transferred. Woodward, who is still a sergeant with the department, did not respond to requests for comment.

The case was among more than 80 investigatory files detailing various forms of San Diego police misconduct that were recently released under Senate Bill 16. The year-old state law makes public previously secret law enforcement records that detail when peace officers made unlawful arrests or searches, used unreasonable or excessive force, failed to intervene when another officer used unreasonable or excessive force or practiced discrimination.

Such information has been confidential for decades under one of the strictest police privacy laws in the nation.

‘Blue wall of silence’

Police reform advocates have worked for years to advance bills like SB 16, which they say are imperative if departments want to build trust with the communities they serve. The effort has been fueled by high-profile police killings, such as the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 in Minneapolis.

“Public safety depends on trust between communities and law enforcement, and the public, especially, but not limited to, communities of color, have a strong, compelling interest in disclosure and transparency,” said David Loy, legal director at the First Amendment Coalition, an open-government advocacy group.

Some police officials worried that laws like SB 16 would make it harder to attract and retain police officers and would unduly shame officers who made mistakes. But others felt the release would help communicate to the public that the systems in place are working.

“I think we get attacked a lot for the blue wall of silence,” said Jared Wilson, president of the San Diego Police Officers Assn. “I think this will show that we have the ability to hold each other accountable.”

The law was passed in 2021 and builds on other police transparency laws, namely SB 1421 — a landmark bill that made records of officer-involved shootings, serious use of force, and verified complaints of sexual assault and dishonesty available to the public.

In addition to the release of new records, SB 16 sets retention rules. Agencies must keep records for at least five years when misconduct is alleged, and if it is sustained or corroborated by an investigation it must be kept for 15 years.

The law took effect on Jan. 1, 2022, but it included a one-year grace period for records involving cases that occurred before 2022.

Several local law enforcement agencies had previously released a handful of records under the law. Last week, the San Diego Police Department disclosed dozens of cases — all from before 2022 and some going back to the 1980s. Many of the officers involved have retired or are no longer with the department, officials said.

In the records, officers searched bags they weren’t supposed to, struck people who were detained, and discriminated against colleagues and members of the public. Some officers faced discipline multiple times.

Many of the files are dozens of pages long and include interviews with witnesses and the accused. In Woodward’s interview about the 2021 incident, he told investigators that when he said “dark meat,” he meant meat that is fattier than the white meat on some animals.

But investigators determined that even if Woodward had not intended to cause harm, his statement created a “negative work environment.”

Handwritten notes

Police leaders said the records took months to compile.

San Diego police Capt. Jeff Jordon said the Police Department’s retention policy far exceeds the one set by the new law. The department keeps its officers’ records for their entire career plus three years after they leave the department. None of the responsive documents had been digitized, officials said.

The files include videos, audio recordings and thousands of pages of investigations. Many records appear to be scanned copies of the original report, with some including handwritten notes. Some older files look typewritten.

The files were also held by a variety of city departments, such as the city attorney’s office, which may also be involved in some police-misconduct investigations.

Jordon said the department reached out to all officers affected by the release; some were upset to learn the previously confidential files were being made public.

“Some were upset because, had they known they were going to be made public, they would have worked harder to appeal the allegations,” Jordon said.

Other officers reported records slated for release included findings that were later overturned — determinations that sometimes the department didn’t have.

Jordon said pulling the records together will probably result in a request for changes in how the city maintains its files to make compliance easier in the future. Additional personnel may also be needed.

“We tried to find that balance between the employee, our policies and procedures and what the intent of the law was,” Jordon said. “I think we’re releasing stuff that we feel is appropriate and meets the standards set up by our state Legislature.”

The Sheriff’s Department in recent months has uploaded to its website records for some cases that fall under SB 16. Lt. Amber Baggs, a spokesperson, said the department would upload the rest of its SB 16 records by the end of 2022.

The department’s SB 16 records include cases in which deputies used unreasonable or excessive force and engaged in discrimination. Baggs said the department does not have any records about unlawful arrests or failures to intervene.

Policies that explicitly require officers or deputies to intervene when their co-workers use unreasonable or excessive force are relatively new. Agencies around the county — and nationwide — made it a priority after Floyd’s death. Just a month later, for instance, the San Diego Police Department announced a duty-to-intervene and de-escalation policies.

Conflict of interest?

Before SB 1421 and SB 16, California was one of the most secretive states in the country concerning law enforcement records, experts said. The two bills introduced new levels of transparency, but some feel improvements can be made.

SB 16, for example, applies only to cases in which the complaints of misconduct were sustained.

“And ‘sustained finding’ is a key term here because it basically means an internal finding of this conduct by the law enforcement agency itself or its oversight board after opportunity for administrative appeal by the officer,” Loy said.

This is notable, Loy said, because even if some other body finds that an officer committed any of the behaviors laid out by SB 16 — say, a court determined an officer committed an unlawful arrest — if the department or oversight board did not internally sustain that finding, the department would not be required to release those records.

“The public has a compelling interest not only in knowing whether a police department has sustained an allegation of misconduct, but whether the allegation of misconduct was truly, fairly, thoroughly, impartially investigated so the public can have confidence that the police department is properly policing its own officers,” Loy said. “Even if the allegation is ultimately found unsubstantiated.”

Malcolme Muttaqee, who advocates for police accountability as an organizer with Pillars of the Community, agrees. The organization focuses on social justice issues in southeastern San Diego.

Muttaqee noted that it is internal investigations — “police investigating the police,” he said — that determine whether the complaints are valid.

“There’s a clear conflict of interest,” he said.

As part of his work, Muttaqee helps community members file complaints with the San Diego Police Department. Most of the time the complaints are not upheld, he said. Even cases he feels are “clear violations,” he said.

New scrutiny

Wilson said his union is not opposed to transparency and accountability, but that with the release of records, “one little mistake can haunt you for the rest of your life.”

“Throughout the profession, it’s a growing concern,” he said.

He added that some “mistakes are absolutely unforgivable” — but in other cases, discipline or improvements to training could be appropriate, even necessary.

Union leaders also worried the release of records will bring a new level of scrutiny to law enforcement that will make it challenging to attract and retain officers and deputies.

“SB 16 does nothing to improve policing,” David Leonhardi, president of the San Diego County Deputy Sheriffs’ Assn., said in a statement. “At a time when there are thousands of peace officer vacancies throughout our state, and agencies are struggling to retain the valuable and experienced employees they do have, SB 16 will only exacerbate those problems.”

The law might also affect the length of time investigations take to complete, police leaders said. Investigations into allegations of misconduct already take months, sometimes more than a year, in part because of the appeals process. San Diego police officials said it’s possible the knowledge that some records will be made public will motivate officers to fight determinations they otherwise would have accepted.

The San Diego Police Department’s records can be found on the city’s website at sandiego.gov/police/data-transparency. For the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department’s records, go to bit.ly/3Q5IkBD.

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