by Leslie Layton
posted July 14
The City of Chico has settled a lawsuit filed by a local journalist over violations of the California Public Records Act, providing the documents requested and agreeing to pay the costs of the journalist’s attorney.
The taxpayers’ price tag for the City’s non-compliance is $43,637 – which is the cost of the San Francisco attorney hired by ChicoSol contributor Dave Waddell. The City has also provided all requested records – in some cases 19 months after the requests were first made.
Waddell had requested public records related to four killings by or involving officers at the Chico Police Department; the first requests that were addressed by his lawsuit were made in November 2020.
“We wanted to access records related to four tragic shootings, and that’s what we achieved,” said attorney Aaron Field, who represented Waddell. “Hopefully this was a learning experience for all involved and will not be recurring.”
The City is represented by a Southern California law firm, Alvarez-Glasman & Colvin. Senior Partner Roger Colvin, who helped with the case, couldn’t be reached for comment. The $43,637 bill could have been much higher had the City not settled quickly.
In all four cases the City disclosed some documents and declared the requests fulfilled. When Waddell requested all related records, including video and audio recordings, the City stalled, sometimes saying that it needed more time, or that it no longer had the records, or that staff were “out sick” and the requests couldn’t immediately be addressed.
A few of the records that were provided were heavily redacted.
The delays put the City in violation of new transparency laws that took effect in January of this year, and arguably the earlier requirement that responses to Public Records Act requests be prompt. In addition, Field said, some of the redactions were “unjustified based on statutes [the City] cited.”
The records were provided in their entirety by June 3 – with unjustified redactions removed, Waddell said — and a court order emanating from the settlement agreement was signed by a Butte County Superior Court judge June 29.
Field said language in the agreement indicates the City now recognizes “important principles that will be useful to future requesters.”
Waddell, who is working on a book about Butte County law enforcement killings, said the records have shaped many of his stories for ChicoSol, giving him and our readers a more multi-dimensional understanding of not just what transpired during the killings, but also how the investigations into those killings were handled.
For example, records released with the assistance of his attorney led to this story that shows how Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey organized an unorthodox group “re-interview” of the officers who were at the scene of the March 17, 2017, police killing of Desmond Phillips.
And Waddell said the records on the Sanchez killing that have been released “change the whole complexion of that killing.”
“Honestly, that killing is a travesty when you look at the actual facts of what happened,” he said.
The autopsy report on Sanchez first arrived heavily redacted. But when unjustified redactions were removed and additional records and video examined, Waddell discovered that the bullet wounds received by the fleeing Sanchez raised troubling questions. He then consulted a national police expert and wrote this story about the killing by Chico Police Sgt. Mark Bass, which has received unusual attention and 40 comments submitted by readers.
Killings by law enforcement officers are routinely followed by investigations conducted by DA Ramsey’s Butte County Officer Involved Shooting/Critical Incident Protocol Team. Waddell said the records “reveal that these so-called investigations were blatantly biased in every killing I looked at involving the Chico Police Department. The fix was in to exonerate the killing officers in every instance.”
Waddell has submitted two new Public Records Act requests for documents related to Bass.
Although it’s still unclear why the City didn’t retain records that were requested by Waddell, attorney Field is optimistic that it now understands that it must “allocate the resources necessary to comply with state law.”
The settlement language notes the requirement that public records be provided a requester “at the earliest possible time and no later than 45 days” from the date of the request. That sentence appears at first glance to be “simply a statement of law,” Field said.
“But in another sense it’s a formal recognition of [the City’s] obligations under that law.”
Leslie Layton is editor of ChicoSol.