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Last week, San Diego police responded to another request for information about former officer Anthony Arevalos with a similar answer: You can’t have that.
Arevalos faces 21 felony charges related to accusations that he sexually assaulted or solicited sexual bribes from seven women in the last three years. Each incident occurred during a downtown traffic stop while Arevalos was on duty, prosecutors say.
His case is one of several involving accusations of criminal conduct by San Diego police officers this year, but it’s gained far more attention because of its severity and scope. How could Arevalos behave as prosecutors say without attracting suspicion from his roughly 1,900 colleagues?
To probe that question, we requested to inspect all of Arevalos’ emails from the last year. We wanted to assess how Arevalos interacted with other officers and his supervisors before the allegations came to public light in March. We don’t know if the emails provide much information, but we wanted to check any documents that may help understand the case and how police responded to the allegations.
We’ve already examined how police responded to one woman’s complaint. In February last year, the woman told police that Arevalos had sexually assaulted her. Police recommended criminal charges to prosecutors but they dismissed the case. Police then put Arevalos back to work. Police and prosecutors have refused to address numerous questions about how they handled the complaint.
So far, there have been conflicting reports about what else police knew about Arevalos. A search warrant in the case says Arevalos had a well-known history of misconduct. But Police Chief Bill Lansdowne has said there was no indication of wrongdoing until more women came forward this year.
On July 12, police denied our request to view Arevalos’ emails. Police Department lawyers said the emails were potentially part of the criminal investigation and were therefore no longer available for public inspection.
Emails sent or received by government employees are normally public records, but California law contains an exemption for records broadly considered “investigatory files.” In 1993, the state Supreme Court said the exemption may apply to records that become relevant to a criminal investigation. And the court said those records may be withheld indefinitely from the public.
The court cited a couple examples to illustrate its argument. It said a business card — normally a public record — may contain contact information that endangers the safety of an informant. Releasing that business card now or after the investigation’s conclusion, the court said, would pose the same risk.
But there’s one catch. Like other exemptions outlined in state laws, police still have discretion to release the emails. The court’s ruling allows the Police Department to withhold Arevalos’ emails for investigatory purposes, but it doesn’t have to. It can choose to release them.
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Given the public value of exploring the question above, which goes to the heart of public confidence in police to investigate officer misconduct, we asked the department to reconsider releasing Arevalos’ emails.
But police denied our request again. Paul Cooper, Lansdowne’s legal and policy adviser, said prosecutors have requested all information relevant to the Arevalos case be withheld from the public. After the case is resolved, Cooper said the Police Department’s decision may change completely.
Arevalos’ trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 17 and prosecutors estimate it could take several weeks.