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How California Law Shields Violent Police Officers

Is a police officer's right to privacy more important than the right of the community to know who's policing them--and whether they have a record of brutality?

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In 2003, Copley Press, which published the San Diego Union Tribune, sued the county to gain access to an appeals hearing for a sheriff’s deputy facing termination. The suit wound its way up to the state Supreme Court, which rejected the publisher’s demands. Subsequent interpretations of the ruling by cities across the state led to the wholesale redaction of identifying information for police misconduct complaints filed with watchdog agencies. According to the ruling, an officer’s disciplinary information may not be released by either the department or an independent review body, citing a police officer’s right to privacy.

“They’ve been relentless over the past 25 years to create a tool for law enforcement agencies to work without public scrutiny,” Tom Newton, executive director of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, says of police unions. “With Copley, they hit the jackpot.”

In a two-year long investigation involving several California police departments with varying transparency policies, and the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute found that the Copley ruling had its greatest impact on cities like Oakland, where community activism and federal intervention had prompted the department to provide unique levels of transparency about individual officers. In cities like Fresno, on the other hand, where departments had long invoked the 1977 law to shield files, Copley simply gave further legal justification to keep records secret until they’re pried loose by litigation.

“It’s a huge backtrack in oversight, ” says former ACLU-Northern California police practices expert Mark Schlosberg. “In the long term, [Copley] is going to be really detrimental.”

The bloody climax of the hunt for Lovelle Mixon offers a window into that long term. OPD found Mixon hiding at his sister’s apartment. When members of the SWAT team arrived, they cobbled together an impromptu entry team, led by Gonzales. Snipers and hostage negotiators had not made it to the scene, Mixon’s location had not been confirmed and, critically, medical support was not yet on site. But the on-site commander sent Gonzales and his team into the apartment anyway.

The team burst through the door and lobbed several “flash-bang” stun grenades. The grenades had an unexpected effect: the plaster walls of the apartment caught fire, kicking up a fog of plaster and smoke that obscured the officers’ vision. Mixon opened fire from behind this screen, killing Sgt. Ervin Romans and hitting Gonzales in the shoulder. One stun grenade struck Mixon’s 16-year-old sister Reynette Mixon on the leg, melting her pajama pants to her body.

Lovelle Mixon fatally shot another officer, Sgt. Dan Sakai, and again hit Gonzales before Gonzales finally shot and killed him. By that point, it had become the deadliest day for Golden State law enforcement since 1970.

The loss of four officers in two separate encounters with a single suspect prompted OPD to commission an independent analysis of what went wrong. The findings were excoriating, listing a host of tactical errors. A large portion of the report, however, centered on the actions of Gonzales’ ad hoc Entry Team. Among the multiple shortcomings identified, the team did not need to confront Mixon, who was “contained within the apartment confines and not an at-large threat in the community.”

Gonzales didn’t order the entry, but he led it and, according to the report, made a bad situation worse. The report stressed that the team “was completely unprepared for this level of resistance and should have been withdrawn to safety where careful assessment could be made.” But that was hardly Gonzales’ style.

Gonzales took an extended medical leave after the Mixon debacle, but has returned to duty as a robbery detective, where he still serves today. He was part of the department-wide deployment on Nov. 5, 2010, to contain protests over the light sentence ex-BART police officer Johannes Mehserle received for killing Oscar Grant. He was photographed that night in riot gear with a shotgun in hand.

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