On February 20, 2017, Inglewood police discovered an unconscious couple in an idling car. It was 3 a.m. Kisha Michael was a mother of three, Marquintan Sandlin a father of four. The police shot them 20 times after what they have described only as “an unknown exchange.” Two years later, after media questions and persistent inquiries by the grief-stricken family, the reasons Michael and Sandlin were killed remain shrouded in secrecy.
District Attorney Jackie Lacey’s investigation into their murders is dragging into its second year. And inside the police department, hundreds of records are being destroyed.
These records were destroyed to circumvent public access under SB 1421, the new state law that gives families the ability to know, finally, what happened to their loved ones.
The information SB 1421 provides isn’t just critical to give families closure. Prosecutors build their cases on the word of officers like those involved in the Inglewood shooting. And a public accounting of officers who break the public trust is essential to supporting calls for reform. In Los Angeles, activists have demanded that Lacey implement a “Do Not Call” list, to insulate the public from misconduct and the dishonesty of known bad cops by refusing to prosecute cases that rely on their testimony. But Lacey and other chief prosecutors refuse.
Destruction of records is happening across California. Officers in Long Beach destroyed 12 years of internal affairs records just before the passage of SB 1421 made them publicly accessible. In San Bernardino County, the police union sued to stop the bill from going into effect, and the police union in Orange County is doing the same. As these records are destroyed, new evidence of rampant misconduct continues to emerge, causing prosecutors across the country to develop lists of officers whose testimony will no longer be used.
It’s not just police; elected officials are also being shielded despite the law. Recent service record requests on Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a notorious opponent of SB 1421 who served for 30 years as a Sacramento County sheriff’s deputy, have all been denied with conflicting reasons—sometimes the records don’t exist, other times the department insists SB 1421 can’t be applied retroactively.
What little we do know about Cooper suggests the public would benefit from learning more. Cooper oversaw a jail that was sued over illegal strip searches. During his tenure, Cooper told a female colleague that she needed a little “jungle love” before she got married. When he was working for both the sheriff and the city council, a grand jury found he bullied the city council into increasing their contract with the sheriff’s department more than twofold.
What else will be unearthed about Cooper if disciplinary records are made public?
We know that when cops destroy records, they’re burying their own wrongdoing. California has a long history of such tactics, dating back to a massive purge of police documents in the 1970s that saw officers in Los Angeles destroy more than four tons of personnel records, rather than allow the information to be used in court.
We have the right to know who is patrolling our streets with a badge and a gun. We have the right to know if cops who move into our communities from other departments are running away from a history of abusing community members. SB 1421 allows us to see patterns of abuse by individual officers and to hold police departments accountable.
This information can save lives. We know this because we’ve seen officers who have killed people in the past go on to do it again.
Theresa Smith, who lost her son, Caesar, to a police shooting in 2009 and advocates for the firing of the officers involved, is one such mother I have worked with. Of the five officers who shot her son, two of them went on to kill more men afterwards. They both remain on duty.
As we submitted the file, she said, “This might seem like just filling out a form but for me, it’s what keeps me going. I won’t rest until the people responsible for Caesar’s death are held accountable.”
Cooper has opposed SB 1421 at every step. Now that it’s passed, he’s benefiting directly from attempts to flout the law and keep his records hidden from public view. This is abjectly wrong. No elected official should be allowed to hide their past and defy a democratically-passed law. We need to open the blinds, bring in some sunlight, and begin healing the rift between police officers and those they’ve harmed—and that should start with Jim Cooper.
Cat Brooks is the Executive Director of the Justice Teams Network, a network of grassroots activists providing rapid response and healing justice in response to all forms of State violence across the State of California. Cat is the co founder of the Anti Police-Terror Project, and hosts the UpFront radio show on KPFA in the Bay Area.