California’s attorney general objects to President Donald Trump’s border wall. But when it comes to letting the public know about police misconduct, it’s another story.
He’s all for a wall to keep the public in the dark.
My colleagues and I learned that the hard way when a letter landed the other day in our office at UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program. It had a simple message: You committed a crime for doing your job as journalists, for asking for and then receiving a documents we sent you.
What were the documents? Spreadsheets with nearly 12,000 names of law enforcement officers or applicants who had committed crimes—from shoplifting, to perjury, to murder.
Not a list of accusations. Not a list of arrests. No. These were convictions, already decided cases available to anyone who walks into courthouses across California.
When Attorney General Xavier Becerra tries to claw back data, it raises the question: Who is he standing up for?
Lately, at least, the answer has seemed pretty clear.
He recently also rejected a Public Records Act request for misconduct records of his own department’s officers that should be available under a new law.
Our case started when journalists affiliated with Berkeley filed public records requests asking the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training—called POST— to identify officers who had been convicted of crimes. The department took its time, asked for extensions under the law, and then responded, sending us the spreadsheets. Three weeks later, Becerra’s office sent a shot in the dark.
The message to us was clear: You weren’t authorized to receive the documents POST sent you. So destroy them. And if you don’t: “You are hereby on notice that the unauthorized receipt or possession” of the record we sent you is a misdemeanor.
The letter went on to threaten legal action: “If you do not intend to comply with our request, the Department can take legal action.”
Why does this matter?
- Because we have an attorney general threatening the press for doing its job, which doesn’t seem much different than a president who labels the press the “enemy of the people.”
- Because we have an attorney general who wants to keep a wall of secrecy around police misconduct.
- Because we have an attorney general who appears to be flaunting the very principles that have protected a free press in this country. The implication of his department’s letter is clear: Don’t report on the documents.
We think what we learned from the documents is important for the public to know: the extent of law enforcement criminality in California and how much has been hidden from us until now, some of the very questions the new law he’s fighting was meant to answer. We intend to pursue our reporting in the weeks and months ahead.
In this country, thankfully, news organizations are free from criminal liability for publishing information, even from secret documents, if they didn’t commit a crime in obtaining them.
Reporters have protection from prosecution for a reason. Otherwise, governments could punish journalists for doing their job.
That sure seems to be what the attorney general is trying to do here.
John Temple is the director of the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CALmatters.