DOWNEY — City officials are at odds over the Police Department's policy of shredding records of past internal investigations that are 5 years old or older.
The policy, unanimously approved by the City Council in January, 1984, was unsuccessfully challenged last week by two council members, one of whom pledged to raise the issue again after the council election in June, 1986.
Councilman Bob Davila, a 27-year veteran officer in the Los Angeles Police Department, said the policy should be rescinded because it makes the council look "fishy."
"It (the policy) would make the City Council appear to help the chief cover up misdoings," Davila said.
City officials contend the records should be destroyed because they may be used against the city in future lawsuits, although state law regarding the admissibility of evidence in both criminal and civil trials now prohibits the use of records of internal investigations that are 5 years old or older. In interviews, city officials said the records should still be destroyed because the law may be changed in the future.
Davila's attempt to rescind the ordinance was defeated by a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Randy Barb and council members Diane Boggs and Bob Cormack voting in opposition, and Davila and James Santangelo voting in favor.
Davila and Santangelo, however, argue that the records would be useful to a new police chief in evaluating his department.
The issue of whether the records should be destroyed is an "age-old question" in law enforcement, said William Summers, supervising attorney for the International Assn. of Chiefs of Police in Gaithersburg, Md.
Indeed, the association has never taken a formal position on the issue that stirs "heated debate" among police chiefs, Summers said. While some chiefs contend retaining records is a valuable tool in spotting officers who may have problems, other chiefs maintain keeping the records has a bad effect on the morale of police officers, Summers said.
However, a spokesman for the Southern California affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union said that keeping records
for only five years is an "unreasonably short time."
Paul Hoffman, ACLU legal director, said that the records should be preserved for at least 10 years in case they are involved in lawsuits. He also said he believed the records may help establish a pattern of behavior and that the state law that prevents records 5 years or older from being introduced may be subject to a constitutional challenge.
In Downey, for two consecutive years, the department has destroyed records of internal investigations that are 5 years old or older, as allowed by state law. The records destroyed annually include citizen complaints, findings of internal investigations and records of any disciplinary actions taken against police officers.
"These records serve no useful purpose," Police Chief William Martin said.
Martin, the city's police chief since 1978, said the courts have been "whittling away" at confidentiality once accorded police personnel records and may someday gain access to records 5 years old or older.
"The only value they (records of internal investigations) could have to anybody is defense attorneys. If they can't do you any good and can do you harm, why keep them?"
Davila, the city's mayor pro tem, pledged to bring the issue up again next year if he is reelected to the council. While one council member said Davila was looking for campaign issues, Davila claimed he was raising a moral issue that he would bring up again "whenever I can get three votes" to rescind the policy.
Practices Vary Widely
Though policies vary widely, some other area departments retain their records of internal investigations for longer than five years.
In Los Angeles, the city Police Department since 1981 has kept records of internal investigations at least 10 years in case they are involved in lawsuits, said Deputy City Atty. Henry Morris.
In Long Beach, the police department keeps records of all sustained charges against officers "indefinitely," while unsubstantiated charges are kept at least seven years, said Deputy City Atty. Bob Shannon. The records are kept beyond five years because city officials do not want to be accused of "suppressing evidence," Shannon said.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department destroys records of internal investigations after five years, unless they involve homicides or lost or stolen guns, in which cases the records are kept indefinitely, said Deputy David Tellez.
The South Gate Police Department since 1980 has destroyed records of all internal investigations that are 5 years old or older, unless they are involved in a lawsuit, said Chief Norman Phillips. In case of a lawsuit, records are destroyed after the lawsuit is settled.
The Downey council members explain their positions in a variety of ways.