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'On Our Watch' Examines California's Unsealed Police Disciplinary Records

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When a police officer is accused of misconduct, it is common for officials to promise an investigation.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

CASSANDRA DECK-BROWN: I am concerned by the actions of some of our officers.

UNIDENTIFIED MINNEAPOLIS POLICE SPOKESPERON: I will absolutely look at the case in its entirety.

UNIDENTIFIED MESA POLICE SPOKESPERSON: We have opened an internal affairs investigation into this.

INSKEEP: So officials say at press conferences, but the public rarely hears anything more. The results of internal affairs investigations are very often confidential. Now we can reveal how some of those secret investigations turned out over the years. California opened its once-hidden records. And a new podcast from NPR and KQED examines how police investigate police when they thought nobody would be watching.

Sukey Lewis of San Francisco's KQED has spent 2 1/2 years going through thousands of police internal affairs files, documents, videos, much more. And she's with us now. Hey there, Sukey.

SUKEY LEWIS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So I know it's been difficult. Local departments have resisted releasing this public information. But what have you found so far?

LEWIS: Well, it's still really not a complete picture because of that difficulty we've had getting files from all these different policing agencies. But we are starting to see how departments investigate serious use of force by police and that it's often documented but rarely disciplined. We also got to see misconduct cases and these internal investigations that found officers who were disciplined for theft, domestic violence, lying on police reports and abusing their power to sexually harass or abuse people. And in many of these serious cases, officers were fired or they resigned but weren't criminally investigated or charged. So departments might fire an officer, but by keeping the misconduct out of the criminal justice system, those cases were still secret and protected by officer confidentiality.

INSKEEP: Well, how does that confidentiality affect a case?

LEWIS: I'll tell you about this one case. There was this woman named Katheryn Jenks, and she kept calling 911 for help when there was no apparent emergency. The officers kept responding, and they thought that maybe something was going on with her mental health. But when she calls 911 again, they arrest her for abusing the emergency system, and then they charge her with resisting arrest. But the body camera footage doesn't match what they wrote on their police reports. I'm going to play some audio from the incident. A warning - it's really hard to listen to and may not be appropriate for kids. Jenks got really badly injured by a police dog during the arrest.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KATHERYN JENKS: Ow, ow. Get him off of me.

NATALIE RAFFERTY: He's not on you. He's holding onto your clothing.

JENKS: Oh, my God. No.

LEWIS: The department investigated and found that the officers shouldn't have arrested her in the first place and that they falsified information on their police reports to make their use of force seem justified. But until we reported on this, Katheryn Jenks didn't know anything about the internal affairs findings, and she was still facing criminal charges.

INSKEEP: Ah, something that her defense lawyers surely would have wanted to know. Are you still learning more about cases like this?

LEWIS: Yes. Just in recent days, we've learned more about the high-profile case of Oscar Grant. He was a young man in Oakland killed on a BART train platform on New Year's Day in 2009.

INSKEEP: Right.

LEWIS: There was huge public scrutiny of this case and massive public protests. It was really the first case to go viral due to cellphone footage and sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. But the recordings of the internal affairs investigation weren't released by the agency until KQED actually sued them. And they just came out a couple of weeks ago. So here's a BART detective starting the interview with an officer, Tony Perrone, whose actions on the platform were really in question after the incident.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED BART POLICE OFFICER: I'd like to put it on record that I have a close personal and working relationship with you, Tony. And I want to make sure that you're OK with me interviewing you.

TONY PIRONE: Yeah, I'm fine with that.

INSKEEP: Whoa.

LEWIS: So it's stunning that they have this guy who worked really closely with both the officer who shot Oscar Grant, Johannes Johannes Mehserle, and Tony Pirone run their interrogations. And we heard this over and over, especially in use-of-force cases. The investigators can be really deferential to the officers rather than pushing back on them or asking them for answers.

INSKEEP: OK. We said 700 California law enforcement agencies, all of whose records, in theory, have been made public - do they all have these kinds of secrets?

LEWIS: Going through all the records we've gotten so far, one thing that's really stood out is what a patchwork police discipline is. The agencies or departments, they have different rules - or even if they have the same policies, they enforce them differently. So that means a cop who might be fired or disciplined for something in San Francisco might not even get a reprimand for it somewhere else.

And I'll give you one kind of funny example of this. One of the investigations we got was about this officer who got caught stealing. He'd taken a blue lives matter mug from one of his colleagues. There was an interrogation and everything, and he gets fired. The darker side of that uneven enforcement is that in another case that we look at in the podcast, there's an officer who fails to investigate a statutory rape. And while he also gets fired, he immediately gets hired by a new department.

INSKEEP: Ah, which is something that confidentiality makes possible, I suppose. What are some of the other things that make it hard to hold officers accountable?

LEWIS: Well, here in California, like a lot of other states, police officers have a very robust bill of rights that protects them when they go into these interview rooms. For instance, they have the right to know what they're going to be questioned about ahead of time. They also have rights to an extensive appeals process for any discipline that's imposed. So the way it's set up, the incentives aren't necessarily about justice or even necessarily about protecting the public.

INSKEEP: OK, protecting who then?

LEWIS: Well, one of the people I've talked to a number of times over the past couple of years is Judge LaDoris Cordell. After she retired from the bench in Santa Clara County, she served as a police auditor for the city of San Jose, which means she got to sit in on internal affairs cases.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LADORIS CORDELL: So you talk about the cities getting at the truth or justice. The cities basically are protecting themselves from lawsuits. They're concerned about liability.

LEWIS: She wasn't the only person who pointed this out to me, that this system that says it's about accountability is actually about managing risk to the city. Now, I don't want to suggest that accountability can't be a part of the process. But because of these special rights and the way that things are set up, cities, in some ways, are more beholden to these contracts with their employees, with police officers, than they are to members of the public.

INSKEEP: Sukey, thanks for the reporting.

LEWIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Sukey Lewis is part of a team of journalists reporting on unsealed disciplinary records across California, and she is the host of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED. The first episode is out today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.