Since Feb. 21, 2014, Laurie Valdez has tried to understand why San Jose State University police shot and killed Antonio Guzman Lopez, her partner and the father of her two children. Police contend the 38-year-old man, who witnesses say was walking around campus waving a bladed weapon, set upon them when they confronted him. Valdez and Lopez’s family contend he feared the police and was holding a tool and trying to walk away when he was shot.
“From 2014 until SB 1421 became law, I’ve been living in a hell not knowing why Antonio is dead,” Valdez says. “But I recently viewed what the officers did to Antonio and it traumatized me all over again… I have a right to know why my son doesn’t have a father anymore.”
SB 1421, authored by state Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, became law on Jan. 1 and allows the public to access previously unobtainable records about police behavior. In instances where an officer shoots someone or otherwise causes them great bodily injury, sexually assaults someone on the job or lies or tampers with evidence in the course of doing the job, the state legislature deemed the public has a right to know that information.
Valdez’s comments came during a panel discussion about the law, held May 13 in Sacramento and sponsored by CALmatters and the First Amendment Coalition.
At least a half-dozen lawsuits were filed by unions after the law took effect, specifically over whether it required agencies to release records created prior to Jan. 1, 2019 when the law took effect. So far, the courts have ruled in favor of retroactivity, meaning the public can obtain pertinent information about incidents from years before the bill became law, FAC Executive Director David Snyder said on the panel.
Also speaking was attorney David P. Mastagni, whose firm, Mastagni Holstedt, represents police unions up and down the state, including the Monterey County Deputy Sheriff’s Association.
Mastagni’s viewpoint on SB 1421 was clear: “I think it was poorly drafted by the ACLU with deceptive language (and) was sold to the legislature,” he said. “Many areas of the bill are extremely unclear.”
Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter with Bay Area News Group, co-founder of the California Reporting Project and instructor at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, worked with a grad student to dispatch nearly 500 Public Records Act requests on Jan. 1. Now the consortium has filed SB 1421 requests with every police agency in the state, going back five years. “Production has been spotty at best,” Peele says.