The UC San Diego campus / Image via Shutterstock

The University of California system is aware of more than 200 incidents involving police use of force on its 10 campuses in recent years. Nearly half of those incidents resulted in the injury of an officer or another person.

Yet only two police use of force case files have been released publicly.

That’s despite California Senate Bill 1421, a landmark transparency law that went into effect last year. It requires police to turn over internal records involving police shootings and use of force, and instances of sexual assault or lying by on-duty officers.

The unwillingness of UC campuses to release more of its investigations to Voice of San Diego over the last 16 months drives home an important point about public records: The agencies in possession of documents have significant say over what is and isn’t releasable based on how they interpret laws.

In this instance, the dispute seems to rest on the meaning of a single word.

When it comes to use of force cases, California lawmakers intended for police agencies to release records involving death or great bodily injury, but they never defined the term “great.”

One of the case files that is being withheld involved a man who broke an ankle and leg. A short description of the incident provided by a UC-wide policing commission shows the man was pushed by a campus officer.

When another campus was provided with evidence that it may be wrongly withholding records, an administrator promised to look into it — and then never followed up.

Different Standards

The University of California maintains 10 state-sanctioned police forces, one for each of its campuses, with a total staff of 439 officers as of last year.

Voice of San Diego filed requests for SB 1421-related records at the UC administrative office and at each individual campus. In the end, only three campuses provided records: UC Davis, UC Merced, UC Santa Barbara (UC Riverside indicated that they held one record, but said they could not release it during an active investigation). The records date from 2004 to present. UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, UCLA, UC Irvine, UC Santa Cruz and UC San Francisco all provided no records of police misconduct disclosable under the law.

Officials at the top of the UC system also contended they had few, if any, records they could disclose under the law.

“UCSD (and nearly every other campus, as I recall) has already informed other CPRA requestors that it has no records under SB 1421,” Dan Scannell, the systemwide Public Records Act coordinator for the University of California Office of the President, said in a February 2019 email.

The following month, however, Scannel closed the university-wide request for all SB1421 records. He said that since Voice of San Diego had requested records at all UC campuses individually, there was no need for the university-wide request. Scannel noted that any records of use of force “that did not result in great bodily injury” would not be disclosed.

But in addition to the individual records obtained from each campus, Voice of San Diego obtained records compiled by a UC-wide commission on policing. Those records, which include data just from 2016 and 2017, indicate that in at least 80 instances, police or a subject had sustained an injury. For example:

  • “In progress crime subject ran from officer into a chain link fence and fell bounced back onto officer and officer pushed him and he fell on ground receiving a broken ankle and leg.”
  • “Subject 1 receive[d] a large abrasion to elbow. Subject 2 had bleeding in the inside of his mouth. Officer receive an abrasion to his elbow.”
  • “Subject resisting arrest one officer received abrasion/gash to left knee, second officer receive abrasion to knee. Subject also received an abrasion to his knee.”

No records describing instances like the ones above were provided to Voice of San Diego.

Defining ‘Great Bodily Injury’

Publicly available documents also suggest that campuses are withholding case files involving “great bodily injury.”

In 2013, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge argued that UCLA police used excessive force when officers slammed him onto his car for a seatbelt violation and handcuffed him. Turns out that man was David S. Cunningham III, the former president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, who was appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger to oversee police use of force cases and others. In 2014, UCLA and Cunningham settled the case for $500,000.

UCLA did not provide Voice of San Diego any records of that incident.

Public records offices in California are required to conduct an exhaustive and good-faith search of records. UC Berkeley said it was able to determine within a matter of days that it had no records disclosable under SB 1421. But one of the campus’ internal reports described a situation where protestors were trampled and jabbed by officers.

One protest “involved the use of force by police against large numbers of protesters” and “thirty-two individuals were arrested and more were injured or handled roughly,” according to a 2011 report conducted by UC Berkeley’s police review board. Another observer in the report noted that “when officers near the hedges appeared to be jabbing someone on the ground, and someone screamed, ‘You’re trampling us! We can’t breathe!’”

There is also publicly available video that shows police dragging two protesters, including a professor, to the ground by their hair.

No records of the instances mentioned in that report or seen in the video were provided to Voice of San Diego.

When presented with the review board’s findings, UC Berkeley said in February 2019 that it would get back to VOSD with a new date of when the “correct” response to the initial request could be provided. But the UC Berkeley public records department never responded to follow-up attempts or provided any new information.

Representatives for the UC system said the campuses adhere to the definition in the California Penal Code when evaluating whether an incident involved “great bodily injury.” In court cases, this has been defined as “evidence of multiple abrasions and lacerations to the victim’s back and bruising of the eye and cheek” or “multiple contusions, swelling and discoloration of the body, and extensive bruises.”

Kelly Aviles, a volunteer attorney at the First Amendment Coalition, said that even by the Penal Code standard the UC system said it’s using, many of the incident records maintained by the UC Police Commission should have been disclosed.

“Adopting this definition, it looks like all of those incidents would be covered by [SB] 1421,” Aviles said.

Unclear Language Goes Back to the Bill

Emily Owens, a professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, said one potential reason for the inconsistency across campuses is that language used in SB 1421 is not clear.

“The type of behaviors agencies are supposed to report under SB 1421 are not really standardized,” she said. “Different agencies, potentially even within the UC system, have very different standards for what constitutes a ‘use of force,’ for example.”

Two of the records provided by the campuses are for officer-involved shootings in which someone was killed: UC Davis, UC Merced. UC Merced provided records from 2015, in which a student who wounded four others with a knife was shot and killed by police. UC Davis provided records from one 2004 incident in which police attempted to subdue a student with tasers; after he opened fire, they shot and killed him.

UC Riverside said it has records from one case in its possession, but cannot release them because the investigation is still pending. (It is likely the case of a 38-year-old man who was shot and killed by UC Riverside police in 2018).

The fourth set of records came from a case at UC Santa Barbara, where officials investigated an officer suspected of falsifying a police report following an incident of force.

Amy Weitz, a spokeswoman for the university system, said last year that there was no UC-wide policy guiding the release of SB 1421 records, and that the campuses’ individual police agencies are responsible for maintaining incident reports involving the discharge of a firearm, significant injury or death.

When asked why the UC maintained a list of hundreds of use of force incidents, but did not provide records of them under SB1421, representatives from the university system did not respond to request for comment.

Owens, the UC Irvine professor, said she believes it’s likely easier for police departments within university systems to evade the level of scrutiny that city agencies, like the San Diego Police Department, face.

“I expect university police to have more unusual internal structures, just because these organizations are not subject to as much public scrutiny as regular municipal police, or sheriff’s deputies,” she said. “The basic mechanisms that we think keep police ‘in check’ simply don’t exist for these agencies.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post said UCLA was ordered to pay David S. Cunningham III $500,000; the university agreed to pay Cunningham that amount as part of a settlement agreement.

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