Tuesday, April 24, 2012
MALDEF Sues Sheriff, Seeks Release of Ruben Salazar Records
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund yesterday filed a petition for writ of mandate against Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, seeking to compel disclosure of documents related to the death of journalist Ruben Salazar.
Salazar, 42 at the time of his death, was the news director of KMEX, having joined the Spanish-language television station months earlier after having reported for the Los Angeles Times, and earlier for other newspapers in Texas and California. He was one of five journalists honored by the issuance of a postage stamp in 2008.
He was in an East Los Angeles bar, taking a break from his coverage of the National Chicano Moratorium March—an event highlighting what organizers said was a disproportionate number of Mexican Americans killed in the Vietnam War—on Aug. 29, 1970 when he was struck by a tear gas projectile fired by a deputy sheriff after what had been a peaceful rally.
The department said deputies had responded to the scene because of looting and arson, a claim participants said was false.
Salazar’s death has been controversial for years, and MALDEF and documentary filmmaker Phillip Rodriguez, the petitioner in the action filed yesterday, have long sought to open up the department’s records to the public.
The department’s explanation is that the deputy did not fire intentionally into the bar, but loaded the wrong type of tear gas round. But there have long been suggestions that Salazar was targeted by law enforcement because of his earlier reports on mistreatment of Latinos.
Rodriguez and MALDEF’s petition under the state Constitution and California Public Records Act seeks release of records referring to Salazar’s death and autopsy, and the ensuing investigation, as well as records of any investigation or surveillance of Salazar on or before the date of his death.
Attached to the petition were copies of the CPRA request submitted by Rodriguez in 2010, as well as correspondence between MALDEF and the department detailing the parties’ dispute.
Those documents show that the department advised MALDEF in June 2010 that it was claiming exemption from the CPRA under statutes limiting access to records of law enforcement investigations, but that it wanted to “facilitate your request to the fullest extent possible.”
Physical Evidence Destroyed
The department reported, however, that all physical evidence had been destroyed after being held for the time required by law, because of practical limits on storage, and that videotape footage had been discarded after it was determined that it had deteriorated beyond the point that it could be salvaged.
The response further indicated concern that release of the thousands of pages of records that the department had would compromise individual privacy rights, and that some of the documents had been prepared by other agencies, such as the district attorney’s and coroner’s offices, which had not authorized their release.
The department promised a review of the documents, which it estimated in June 2010 would take six to eight weeks. But it subsequently said it had turned the entire matter over to its Office of Independent Review, a civilian entity, which did not issue a report until last year.
The OIR reported that a review of the documents showed that while the department made “a number of significant tactical decision-making and weapon choice errors…at least viewed through the prism of modern-day policing,” it found nothing to support claims that Salazar was targeted, or that he had been under LASD surveillance.
Baca subsequently agreed to open the files, with redactions, to public inspection, but not to copying. After MALDEF protested, the sheriff agreed to provide copies on disc, but MALDEF General Counsel Thomas Saenz, noting that those copies contained further redactions, protested.
Exemption Claims Disputed
MALDEF claims that, with respect to documents that were opened to public inspection, the department waived its exemption claims. The department has contended that it never waived any exemption claims because it never offered to fully open the files to the public.
Rodriguez is a fellow at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. He is the producer of the “Ruben Salazar Project” and said in the petition that he has gained funding from a number of sources— Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, Latino Public Broadcasting, The California Council for the Humanities and the California Community Foundation—for a film on Salazar’s life and death but cannot complete it without the documents that the sheriff will not release.
The case is Rodriguez v. Baca, BS136865.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company