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County Weighs Sealing Records

The L.A. County Civil Service panel considers a request by a deputy's attorney to keep files on law enforcement officials confidential.

January 19, 2006|Jack Leonard and Megan Garvey | Times Staff Writers

The Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission is considering an effort to seal from public view the investigative records of law enforcement officials accused of dishonesty, excessive force and other misconduct.

The issue has attracted attention from the Sheriff's Department, the union representing thousands of deputies and open government advocates and has the potential to change decades of access to these records in Los Angeles County.

On Wednesday, an attorney representing Deputy Frank Rothe asked the commission to seal all internal affairs records filed with the panel involving deputies, probation officers and other county law enforcement officials, arguing that those investigations are confidential under long-standing state law.

Those records include a Sheriff's Department investigation of a 2001 bar brawl involving Rothe and two other off-duty deputies.

Department officials suspended Rothe for 25 days after concluding that he struck a bar patron, lied to investigators and tried to interfere with a witness.

The records became available publicly when the department submitted them to the commission last year as part of its response to an appeal Rothe filed against the suspension.

Attorneys representing Sheriff Lee Baca initially filed legal papers in support of the motion.

But on Wednesday, an attorney representing the department asked the commission merely to consider whether it needs a policy to keep some deputies' records confidential.

Michael Gennaco, leader of the county office that oversees Sheriff's Department's discipline, said he believes it is vital for the commission to keep its records open.

"It provides at least one window into an often-shuttered world," he said. "That window is critical to give the public the opportunity to evaluate how the department has handled those cases and how those decisions have held up to scrutiny by an independent body."

Rothe's attorney said Wednesday that he has won the support for his effort from the union representing deputies.

"The fact is that the officer has a right to maintain his privacy and maintains the right to avoid embarrassment from something he does on the job," Rothe's attorney, Richard A. Shinee, told commissioners. "I think it violates the law to let anyone walk in and let them see these documents."

Shinee complained that lawyers from the public defender's office had obtained the documents and recently tried to use them in an arrest by Rothe of a 44-year-old woman accused of driving under the influence of methamphetamine.

There is some legal precedent for Shinee's argument. A state appeals court ruled that a San Diego disciplinary board had to keep police internal affairs records confidential after a San Diego officer sought to keep his disciplinary hearing closed. The court ruled against the San Diego Union-Tribune, which sought the records. The court determined that the internal affairs records should be considered confidential.

Four commissioners present Wednesday said they needed more time to consider the issues and asked county counsel to provide a formal opinion.

Typically, defense attorneys seeking police misconduct records must formally ask a judge to release relevant documents. And Shinee accused the public defender's office of trying to skirt those rules in seeking documents from the commission.

Mark Wynn, the defense attorney on the case, said in an interview that he had done nothing wrong. "My position has always been that the information I received was a public record, and that's it," Wynn said.

At Wednesday's hearing, Susan E. Seager, an attorney for the Los Angeles Times and the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., asked commissioners to keep the records open, arguing that county employees who appeal their discipline to the commission automatically give up some of their privacy rights. Sealing these records, she said, would probably lead the commission to eventually close some of its hearings that involve law enforcement cases, which have also been traditionally open to the public.

The commission's legal advisor, Patrice Salseda, also told commissioners that they should keep the documents public rather than alter their long-standing policy. (Records at the LAPD's hearings for officers appealing disciplinary rulings are generally public).

This issue has raised concerns among community activists who have been critical of law enforcement tactics.

"It's always been an uphill battle and fight to find out an officer's or deputy's previous departmental history," said Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope, a Los Angeles-based civil rights group "If [they are] successful it will even further limit the ability of the community to get a transparent process. It should be a big concern for everyone who has a concern about prior misconduct."

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