Berkeley-based journalists face government backlash over confidential police data

Brian Bi/Staff

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California Attorney General Xavier Becerra informed the Investigative Reporting Program, or IRP, of possible legal action in a Jan. 29 letter, after its reporters gained access to a database of police officers’ arrests and convictions through a Public Records Act, or PRA, request as first reported by The Mercury News.

The IRP at UC Berkeley and its production arm, Investigative Studios, obtained the data from the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training, or POST, through a PRA request, as reported by The Mercury News. POST is a California accrediting body that determines which officers are qualified to be hired or retained by state law enforcement.

The documents revealed that thousands of California law enforcement officers have been convicted of a crime in the past decade, according to The Mercury News. The crimes range from burglary and child molestation to murder.

The attorney general’s office said that while the journalists did not improperly acquire the information, they are not authorized to receive the information, reported The Mercury News. In the letter, the office formally requested that the journalists “immediately permanently destroy the spreadsheet (they) were provided” and that possession of the information constitutes a misdemeanor. However, both the IRP and the Investigative Studios have rejected Becerra’s demands.

David Snyder, a lawyer and executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said that the statute Becerra’s office cited in its letter contains an exception for journalists.

“What he is stating is that he is threatening to bring criminal charges to these journalists for possessing these records,” said Snyder. “And the penal code that the attorney general cites, itself, makes clear that journalists are excluded from the group of people that can be prosecuted. The law makes clear that such a prosecution would be groundless under the First Amendment.”

According to the attorney general’s office, the information is data compiled from records in the Automated Criminal History System, a Department of Justice database that contains confidential records about all Californians including police officers.

“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 an email. “In this case, information from a database that’s required by law to be confidential was released erroneously, jeopardizing personal data of individuals across our state. No one wants to shield criminal behavior; we’re subject to the rule of law.”

The IRP’s director John Temple, however, said the reporters are following basic journalistic practices of confirming the information they obtained. He added that they researched all underlying public records and tried to speak with the officers and their attorneys before publishing anything.

Regarding how the IRP and the attorney general’s office moves forward with the conflict, Snyder said that the attorney general’s legal options are “extremely constrained” by state law and the First Amendment. Temple said that the journalists plan to continue their jobs of providing information to the public.

“It’s not always the case that the public learns that there were problems and that a police officer was committing crimes,” Temple said. “And it’s not always the case that the public is able to debate that the policies we have dealing with the police department are appropriate. And the only way they can do that is have information and that’s what we try to provide.”

Jenny Weng is the lead crime and courts reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jennyweng1999.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Attorney General Xavier Becerra is filing criminal charges against the Investigative Reporting Program. In fact, he threatened to file criminal charges against the program, but has not done so.