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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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This story was produced with the support of the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC-Berkeley.

March 21, 2009, was one of the bloodiest days in the history of the Oakland Police Department and California law enforcement.

It began with a trifle: Two traffic officers, Sergeant Mark Dunakin and Officer John Hege, pulled over 26-year-old parolee Lovelle Mixon for running a traffic light. After Dunakin radioed in Mixon’s driver’s license and learned it was fake, both officers approached the car with the intent of making an arrest. Mixon leaned out of his window and, according to a Board of Inquiry report, “methodically shot each officer twice.” As the officers lay wounded on the sidewalk, Mixon crawled out of the window of his car, stood over them and shot each in the back.

Over the next two hours, roughly 200 officers from several police agencies tore through East Oakland on a manhunt. The magnitude of the response and the absence of OPD brass from the field for 90 minutes would prove critical in shaping the remarkable carnage that followed—three more people killed and two seriously wounded. The lack of senior personnel led to a situation where, as the Board of Inquiry put it, “many responders self-assign[ed] their own activity.” At a moment when OPD’s response needed to be orderly and focused, officers operated without supervision and on their own initiative. One of those officers was Sgt. Patrick Gonzales.

Gonzales would emerge from the day’s dramatic violence as a department hero; some colleagues nicknamed him “Audie Murphy,” the most decorated American soldier of World War II. But to many in the black and Latino neighborhoods Gonzales polices today, he has long been known as something else: a loose cannon. During Gonzales’ 13-year career he has shot four suspects, three fatally. “He’s left a trail of victims in his wake,” says Cathy King, the mother of one of Gonzales’ shooting victims, “but he’s [considered] a valued member of the police department.”

Multiple lawsuits alleging wrongful death, excessive force, illegal searches and racial profiling incidents involving Gonzales have resulted in $3.6 million paid by the city in settlement money. Law enforcement experts say he fits the profile of the “bad apple” minority in OPD that is responsible for most of the allegations of brutality that plague its relationship with the city’s communities of color. And the Board of Inquiry report on the bloody events of March 21, 2009, places significant blame for the carnage on Gonzales’ decisions.

Yet, Gonzales has been consistently promoted and deployed into sensitive situations throughout his career, and without public outcry. That’s because few know about either his record or his promotions. His extensive personnel file is today off-limits to the public, thanks to a dramatic rollback in the transparency of law enforcement records following a California Supreme Court ruling five years ago. The 2006 decision, in Copley Press v. Superior Court of San Diego, effectively classified all records of individual law enforcement officers, even those employed by contractors.

The arc of Gonzales’ career, from a patrol officer in the Eastlake neighborhood to a sergeant on the SWAT team at the heart of one of OPD’s darkest days, tells the story of a department’s broken accountability system, now pushed behind a wall of secrecy.

‘A Huge Backtrack in Oversight’

Copley was the climax of a decades-long battle between California law enforcement unions and civil liberties advocates.

In 1974, the California Supreme Court granted defendants access to police employment files under certain circumstances. That prompted police departments to start shredding records, until, in 1977, police associations and unions won the Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights, which along with key sections of California’s penal code exempted all personnel information from laws allowing residents to access public records. In response, jurisdictions around the state created independent review boards to investigate complaints of police misconduct. These boards became the primary vehicle for communities to hold both individual officers and departments accountable for their interactions with residents.

 
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