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Los Angeles Sheriff fighting union to release names of 300 ‘problem’ deputies to prosecutors

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Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell.

A California sheriff claiming he wants to bring transparency to his department is facing opposition from the union and the courts as they work to block a list a problem officers from being released.

The Los Angeles Times reports Sheriff Jim McDonnell wants to send the names of 300 deputies who have a history of past misconduct — such as domestic violence, theft, bribery and brutality — to prosecutors, who can decide whether to add them to an internal database that tracks problem officers in case the information needs to be disclosed to defendants in criminal trials.

To make its case, the officers’ union is making its argument in court.

The sheriff’s intention is to provide more transparency, but The Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs argues the release will violate state laws protecting officer personnel files drawing unfair scrutiny on deputies whose mistakes might have happened long ago.

This appears to be an issue that isn’t going to be easily solved. Last week, an appeals court last week sided with the union, temporarily blocking the Sheriff’s Department from sending names to the district attorney’s office, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The legal battle is being closely watched by other law enforcement agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department. Police departments in at least a dozen California counties have released similar lists during the past 10 years … earning praise from California’s Supreme Court.

The underlying argument comes down to one, basis tenant: the obligation of prosecutors to hand over evidence that could help the defense, including information that could undermine an officer’s credibility. This tenant is derived from the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brady vs. Maryland where prosecutors must turn over exculpatory evidence to defendants. The Supreme Court ruled failing to disclose such evidence could result in faulty convictions.

California has some of the strictest protections on law enforcement officer records in the country, and finding out what happens behind the blue line is not easy.

Currently, discipline hearings, personnel files and even the names of officers accused in internal affairs investigations are sealed. Today, prosecutors and defense attorneys require a special court order to harvest even basic information from an officer’s personal information file.

The Los Angeles district attorney’s office, which does not have access to police discipline files, learns about potential misconduct from prosecutors who complain about wrongdoing, from law enforcement agencies when they present criminal cases in which officers are suspects and from news articles, D.A. spokesman Greg Risling said in correspondence with the Los Angeles Times.

The Sheriffs Office contends it has an obligation to disclose information on possible officer misconduct.

“This is consistent with the sheriff’s commitment to transparency,” said Assistant Sheriff Todd Rogers.

According to the L.A. County Professional Peace Officers Association this proposed list, and its possible release, continue to punish officers … even when they’ve already been disciplined for the infraction.

ALADS’ president, Det. Ron Hernandez, said sending a list of deputies’ names to prosecutors would be an unfair additional punishment on top of the internal discipline deputies already experienced. Hernandez said lumping deputies together on a list might give the impression that they all committed gross misconduct, whereas some of the wrongdoing was minor.

Superior Court Judge James Chalfant ruled last month that the Sheriff’s Department could give the D.A.’s office the names of problem officers only when there’s a pending case in which that officer might testify.

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“The disclosure of a deputy’s name in conjunction with this list will create a negative stigma for the deputy,” Chalfant wrote in his decision.

The story in the Los Angeles Times reports ALADS contested the ruling, asking for a stricter prohibition. Last week, a two-judge appellate court panel granted the union’s request to put a temporary hold on any transmission of names, even in pending cases.

“It would not surprise me if this case eventually winds up in the California Supreme Court,” Sheriff’s Department’s lawyer, Geoffrey Sheldon told the Los Angeles Times.

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