After journalists obtained a list of police officers’ past criminal convictions, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office has told them to destroy it and that even possessing it is illegal.
Reporters with the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley received the list last month through a public records request from The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).
In an article published Tuesday in the Mercury News, the Berkeley reporters said the list contains 10 years’ worth of convictions with nearly 12,000 names of current and former law enforcement officers, as well as people who had applied to become cops.
Some officers had been fired and others remained on the job despite a conviction, they said. It was not clear how many on the list were civilians who applied for positions in law enforcement.
Among officers on the list, some had allegedly been convicted of trafficking drugs, stealing money from departments, sexually assaulting suspects, taking bribes or filing false reports. A “large number” had driven under the influence of drugs or alcohol, some killing people on the road.
The Mercury News article identified several police officers by name. But the journalists would not be publishing the list in its entirety until more reporting was done to ensure they did not misidentify anyone, said John Temple, the director of the Investigative Reporting Program, in the article.
Late last month, Becerra’s office sent a letter to one of the journalists stating that they had “inadvertently” been provided with “confidential state summary criminal history information” regarding thousands of “civilians as well as current and former peace officers,” requesting they “immediately permanently destroy” the list. The letter warned that even possession of the list was a misdemeanor.
“We always strive to balance the public’s right to know, the need to be transparent and an individual’s right to privacy,” Becerra said in a statement Wednesday, noting the information on the list was confidential. “No one wants to shield criminal behavior; we’re subject to the rule of law.”
“It’s disheartening and ominous that the highest law enforcement officer in the state is threatening legal action over something the First Amendment makes clear can’t give rise to criminal action against a reporter,” David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, told the reporters in the Mercury News.
The attorney general’s office said in a statement to HuffPost Wednesday that the information in the list was not “merely” a list of public information and officers’ records but also “private data” from those who had applied for positions on the force. While the law allowed POST access to the data, Berkeley’s program was not allowed to have it, the AG’s office said.
It also said the Berkeley reporters “chose to publish the confidential information of Californians” despite the justice department’s warnings that it was against the law.
Meanwhile, POST is using the list to verify if officers currently on the job had committed crimes that should bar them from working in law enforcement, a spokesperson told the Berkeley reporters. HuffPost reached out to POST but did not immediately receive a response.
The report comes out as the California attorney general’s office has also been refusing to release records of past misconduct by its agents in the justice department, the Associated Press reported. After a new law went into effect on Jan. 1 allowing the disclosure of internal affairs investigations on police use of deadly force, sexual misconduct and more, Becerra has pointed to conflicting court decisions around whether the law applies to incidents before this year.
This piece has been updated with a statement from California’s attorney general.