They say sunshine is the best disinfectant and North Coast readers need only look at Senate Bill 1421 for evidence.
The landmark police transparency law, which the California Legislature passed last year and took effect in January, reverses decades of institutionalized obfuscation by mandating that law enforcement agencies throughout the state release certain types of officer personnel records. Specifically, the law requires agencies to release the findings of internal investigations into sustained allegations of officer dishonesty and sexual assault while on duty, as well as those related to all serious use of force incidents.
As we reported Aug. 29, the Journal asked all local police departments for these records dating back to 2010 and responses have been trickling in. Almost all the documents received to date have related to local officer involved shootings, and while revelatory in scope and depth, none changed our understanding of what took place in these incidents. The first batch of documents released locally that pertain to officer misconduct came from the Eureka Police Department and its investigation into former officer Jacob Jones, who resigned from the force in May.
As you'll read in "'Badly Tainted'" on page 10, Jones was suspended without pay for a month by EPD Chief Steve Watson after an internal affairs investigation sustained allegations that he'd lied to his superiors in an effort to cover up "defective or incompetent" police work and that in a separate incident he'd failed to accurately document a use of force. Jones indicated he would retroactively appeal the suspension but later opted instead to resign and was hired as an officer by the Willits Police Department, where he was sworn in June 12. Willits Police Chief Scott Warnock was well aware of the allegations against Jones, EPD's findings and the officer's suspension when he decided to hire him.
Prior to Senate Bill 1421, Jones would have quietly joined WPD's ranks and moved on. If the findings of EPD's internal affairs investigation are emblematic of a pattern, he may have continued to lie to superiors and, potentially, even to juries and judges from the witness stand. Regardless of Jones' future conduct, the sustained allegations of his dishonesty would have remained shrouded from public view, releasable by EPD only through a court order. Even Mendocino County's prosecutors — the very people tasked with assessing the credibility of government witnesses — would have been oblivious to Jones' past unless Warnock or someone else in Willits saw fit to clue them in.
But with S.B. 1421 being the law of the land, EPD had to turn over the records when the Journal requested them. We then reported on them, making them a matter of public knowledge. As fate would have it, our story made it into the hands of Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster on the day he subpoenaed Jones to testify in a criminal case. As you'll read in our reporting, Eyster was blindsided by the revelations and has since pledged to never call Jones as a witness and to dismiss or plead away any case currently filed that's contingent on the officer's testimony.
The question here isn't whether Jones is a bad guy or even a bad cop. The question is whether he can serve as a credible witness, a necessary component of a profession that sees officers entrusted with a gun, badge and the authority of the state. Reading through EPD's investigative report, two prosecutors' offices have now resoundingly decided the answer to that question is no.
And it's only thanks to the disclosures required by S.B. 1421 that juries in Mendocino County won't be convicting defendants based solely on the word of an officer with questionable credibility, and that such officers are no longer allowed to shuffle quietly from agency to agency, county to county, when they are found to have behaved in a way that discredits their profession and the trust the public has placed in them.
A bit of sunshine can be a powerful thing.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. He prefers he/him pronouns and can be reached at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.