Mayor of California city defends shredding police records

A Southern California mayor is defending his city's decision to destroy old police shooting and internal investigation records.

The city of Inglewood made the decision to shred the records at a City Council meeting earlier this month, according to a report by the Los Angeles Times.

The move came ahead of the implementation of a new state law that could allow the public to access those records for the first time. The law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, makes public internal investigations of officer-involved shootings, other major uses of force, and confirmed cases of sexual assault and lying while on duty

Inglewood Mayor James T. Butts Jr. told the Times on Sunday that there's no connection between the new law and the decision to shred the old records.

"This premise that there was an intent to beat the clock is ridiculous," said Butts, a former Santa Monica police chief.

He said city officials would have nothing to fear from the records approved for destruction because some of them date as far back as 1991.

"How would they be embarrassing to me?" said Butts, who became part of city government when he was elected mayor in 2011. "I wasn't even here for those records. The records are what they are."

Civil liberties advocates who pushed for the new law said they were troubled by Inglewood's decision.

"(It) undermines police accountability and transparency against the will of Californians," Marcus Benigno, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said in a statement.

He said the law was passed "because communities demanded an end to the secrecy cloaking police misconduct and use of force."

Although California law requires police departments to retain records of officer-involved shootings and internal misconduct investigations for five years, Inglewood has kept some records much longer than that.

The City Council approved the destruction of records that have been in the police department's possession - more than 100 cases - longer than required by law.

City documents say the records are "obsolete, occupy valuable space, and are of no further use to the police department."

It's unclear whether the records have been destroyed.

Releasing the records, no matter how old they are, could reveal new avenues of legal redress and provide families with important details about what happened to their loved ones, said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, a longtime community activist who has worked with the families of those killed in encounters with Inglewood police.

He said the documents also would allow the public to review how well the department handled internal investigations and how seriously it has embraced reforms.

"This action sends a terrible message that lack of transparency is still the policy in Inglewood," Hutchinson said.

Police departments in California have a long history of destroying records to avoid scrutiny. In the 1970s, the Los Angeles Police Department destroyed more than four tons of personnel records after defense attorneys began requesting them as part of criminal cases against their clients. The move resulted in the dismissal of more than a hundred criminal complaints.