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In a win for cities, California Appellate Court rules police officers under investigation are not automatically entitled to reports and complaints prior to interrogations

May 4, 2021
In a decision published April 26, the First District Court of Appeal ruled in Oakland Police Officers Association v. City of Oakland that there is no mandatory obligation to disclose reports and complaints prior to a second interrogation of an officer under investigation.
The decision was in agreement with arguments made by the League of California Cities in its amicus brief filed on behalf of the city of Oakland that there was no obligation to release all reports and complaints, and that requiring disclosure would greatly undermine the integrity of an investigation. This case provides important guidance to cities on what information law enforcement agencies are required to provide to a police officer under the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (POBRA) during an investigation and prior to interrogations of the officer. However, the ruling also creates a split amongst appellate courts in California as to whether officers are entitled to reports and complaints prior to a second interrogation. 

In a similar case in 2017, a California Appellate Court concluded in Santa Ana Police Officers Association v. City of Santa Ana, that officers under investigation were entitled to receive any documents containing “reports” or “complaints” prior to a second or subsequent interrogation as per POBRA, section 3303(g). Police officer unions interpreted “reports” and “complaints” to include not just reports made by the investigative agency, but also body worn camera footage containing witnesses alleging officer misconduct, complainant interviews, and other subject officer interviews.

POBRA section 3303(g) states: “The complete interrogation of a public safety officer may be recorded. If a tape recording is made of the interrogation, the public safety officer shall have access to the tape if any further proceedings are contemplated or prior to any further interrogation at a subsequent time. The public safety officer shall be entitled to a transcribed copy of any notes made by a stenographer or to any reports or complaints made by investigators or other persons, except those which are deemed by the investigating agency to be confidential. No notes or reports that are deemed to be confidential may be entered in the officer’s personnel file. The public safety officer being interrogated shall have the right to bring his or her own recording device and record any and all aspects of the interrogation.”

In the Oakland case, the Internal Affairs Division of the Oakland Police Department investigated misconduct claims involving multiple police officers. The investigation included interviews of the officers under investigation, as well as witnesses. While the initial investigation found no wrongdoing, a civilian investigative agency, empowered by the city to investigate claims of officer misconduct, opened a separate investigation and scheduled officer interviews as part of the investigation. The officers requested all materials containing reports or complaints pursuant to the Santa Ana Police Officers Association v. City of Santa Ana case. This included materials compiled by both the internal affairs investigation and the civilian investigative agency. The request was denied because disclosure of the reports and complaints would greatly undermine the integrity of investigation and the officers sued.

The trial court found in favor of the officers, based on the Santa Ana case, and the city appealed. The Appellate Court for the First District reached a different conclusion, reasoning that the plain language of section 3303(g) only entitles an officer to receive a tape recording of a first interrogation “prior to” a second interrogation, and the fact that the “prior to” language was omitted with respect to “reports and complaints” meant that there was no requirement for those to be disclosed at a particular time.  

The court also held that cities have the ability to designate any records, including reports and complaints, as confidential if disclosure would otherwise interfere with an ongoing investigation. A city can then de-designate those records prior to the completion of the investigation if a city wishes to rely on that information in order to make a sustained finding of misconduct. 

If the ruling is appealed, the case may go before the California Supreme Court to resolve the split decisions by the appellate courts. Cities with questions about how this ruling impacts their city should consult with their city attorney.

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