The Human Rights Defense Center, a law enforcement and prison watchdog group, has sued the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office and the Sheriff’s Department alleging a pattern of unlawful restricting of public access to misconduct claims and lawsuits against the agencies, reports the Courthouse News Service. The watchdog group claims the LA County Sheriff’s Department is refusing to grant public access to at least 1,000 claims and lawsuits alleging misconduct ranging from wrongful deaths, excessive force and sexual assaults by police officers and other department agents. In a nineteen page petition, the group posits that settlements and adjudication of the claims against the Sheriff’s Department has cost taxpayers at least $550 million between 2012 and 2020 alone and the withholding of records amounts to a violation of the California Public Records Act.
In addition, claims against the district attorney’s office alleging various forms of misconduct have cost the county close to $3 million in 2019, the first year the county disclosed associated litigation costs. The petition claims the county has justified denial of the requests by claiming they were “overly broad and burdensome,” not a matter of public interest or too difficult to produce. Early in his tenure, LA County Sheriff Alex Villanueva came out in support of public disclosure of police misconduct records, but has since faced lawsuits and subpoenas from a sheriff’s department oversight board for refusing to disclose information on conditions inside county jails during the Covid-19 pandemic and information on internal deputy gangs.