Deadly Secrets: What Calif. Residents Can’t Know About Police Misconduct

A dramatic rollback in transparency laws left Californians with no way to monitor police misconduct complaints--and thus prevent future violence. Ali Winston investigates.

By Ali Winston Aug 17, 2011

Deadly Secrets: How California Law Has Shielded Oakland Police Violence

A fathers side of the story.

Toddler’s Murder Begs Hard Questions About Violence–and Policing
East Oakland has demanded more cops. They’ve also demanded less violence from the police who protect them.

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Oakland police officer Sgt. Patrick Gonzales has been hailed by his colleagues as one of the department’s biggest heroes. 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.

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.

"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. And where communities besieged by violent crime are struggling with tough questions about how to trust a police force that has so often been accused of its own excessive violence.

The arc of Gonzales’ career tells the story of a department’s broken accountability system, now pushed behind a wall of secrecy.