Crime & Justice

LA sheriff stops sharing data on shooting evaluations, after union objections

An old Los Angeles County Sheriff vehicle is parked outside of the Hall of Justice.
An old Los Angeles County Sheriff vehicle is parked outside of the Hall of Justice.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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The L.A. County Sheriff's Department will no longer report to the public whether individual deputies are deemed in or out of policy when they shoot suspects, after the union that represents rank and file objected.

For months, such data had been available on the LASD's public data sharing page, a lynchpin of Sheriff Jim McDonnell's push for greater transparency. Other police agencies, like the Los Angeles Police Department, have been making evaluations of officer-involved shootings public for years.

But in June, the sheriff's department scrubbed information on whether deputies' force and tactics had been found in or out of policy from its website.

When asked, the department said it will no longer share those decisions with the public. 

McDonnell initially declined to be interviewed for this story, but a sheriff's department representative said the change came at the request of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff's, which sent a letter to the department in January, arguing that sharing such information violates California's police officer privacy laws.

On Thursday, McDonnell told KPCC he wants to strike a balance between sharing information on officer-involved shootings while respecting privacy laws.

"My goal is to be as transparent as we can be but to protect the rights of the officers as dictated by law," McDonnell said, adding that the department's portal is "the most transparent data sharing project in the nation."

Asked about whether LAPD is violating its officers privacy rights when it, unlike the sheriff's department, discloses decisions on whether specific shootings were in or out of policy, McDonnell said he spoke with an LAPD official about the issue. 

"We're trying to be able to figure out what are the best practices and how are, basically, they able to do what they're able to do," McDonnell said. 

The crux of the deputy association's privacy argument: Though names were not attached to the data previously posted by the sheriff's department, it's too easy for the public to figure out if any individual deputy has been disciplined for shooting someone. 

"The concern was that the combination of these data sets and the mandate of the California Supreme Court that law enforcement must release the names of officers involved in shooting incidents, would enable individuals to match names with specific incidents," according to a statement provided by the sheriff's department.

The data set removed from the sheriff's site provided a look into the department's review process for "hit" shootings, in which a deputy's gunfire strikes a person.

At the sheriff's department, shootings are examined by the Executive Force Review Committee. The group determines if the use of deadly force was appropriate. It also reviews tactics, to see if a deputy adhered to department policy.

The data showed it was extraordinarily rare for the department to find the use of lethal force out of policy. Since 2010, just two deputies out of 187 were judged to be using force out of policy, meaning the Force Review Committee found shootings to be in policy 99 percent of the time.

Deputies' tactics were found out of policy slightly more often, in 37 cases out of 187, nearly 20 percent of the time.

Nineteen percent of deputies were disciplined and 22 percent received training.

The data, which covered shootings beginning in 2010 through July 10, 2015, showed another 114 deputies' reviews as pending. KPCC sought updated data on those pending cases, and on shootings that have taken place since last summer, but was told that information would no longer be made public.

The data were removed from the open site in January, soon after the deputy sheriffs' association sent its letter, but remained on a separate sheriff's department site for months.

The American Civil Liberties Union’s Peter Bibring was critical of the decision.

"The sheriff has adopted a very restrictive interpretation at the behest of the union," he said Thursday.

"Law enforcement leaders can’t just, you know, throw up their hands and say the state law binds them," he said.

Bibring pointed to the opposition of the California State Sheriff’s Association, of which McDonnell is a member, to a bill to open up some police records—the bill died in the legislature this year.

ALADS also opposed that measure.

Still, Bibring said state law does carve out many exemptions for police information, keeping much of it private. 

"There's no question that state law throws up an enormous obstacle to transparency and accountability," he said.

A snapshot of the scrubbed sheriff's department page is available on Google, and KPCC has posted the previously available documents to Github.

LAPD releases policy decisions, Long Beach PD doesn't

Southern California's largest law enforcement agencies have different policies regarding which information surrounding officer-involved shootings must be withheld from the public. 

The sheriff's department still posts some shooting data on a county website, but does not include the outcomes of investigations, nor if the deputy was disciplined over the incident. It did say it will consider releasing aggregated data on policy decisions in the future.

The county site does include age and assignment, which the deputy sheriffs' association letter argued should be confidential.

By contrast, the Los Angeles Police Department routinely posts decisions on policy determinations in police shootings online. LAPD figures show that since 2011, the use of lethal force has been found in policy 95 percent of the time, for 322 out of 340 officers.

The LAPD decisions, like the information the sheriff's department used to post, do not list officers' names. But both agencies by law must release the names of officers involved in any individual shooting, and media routinely link LAPD officers' names with disciplinary decisions.

In response to a KPCC request, the Long Beach Police Department declined to release information on whether individual shootings were found in or out of policy. The department did provide overall numbers, which indicate all officers involved in shootings since 2010 were found to have acted in-policy, with the exception of one officer in 2013.

In addition to the review process at individual departments, the Los Angeles District Attorney reviews all "hit" shootings for criminal liability. No officer in the county has been charged in connection with a shooting since 2000.

The legal reviews do not include information on whether the officers' agencies judged their conduct to be in policy, as LAPD provides and the sheriff's department used to.

A KPCC investigation found that between 2010 and 2014, one in three people shot by sheriff's deputies was unarmed, a higher ratio than for the LAPD and law enforcement in the county as a whole.

This story has been updated.

This story is part of a KPCC investigation into officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County.