BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Leticia de la Rosa sat impatiently in the hospital lobby, desperate to find out if her son was still alive.
Hours before, a relative had spotted what looked like her son’s Jeep in a TV news story about a police shooting. De la Rosa arrived on the scene and burst past the police tape, demanding to know the name of the man who had been shot and where he had been taken.
The officers ignored her questions. They told her to step back beyond the police line.
In an emotional fog, she and her sister drove to the nearest medical facility. No one had any information.
Hours went by as she battled back rage, fear and uncertainty. A devout churchgoer, she prayed for God to deliver good news about her 22-year-old son.
“I kept asking anyone I saw, ‘Did they bring someone in, a young Mexican-American man?’ But no one could tell me anything because it was an officer-involved shooting,” says de la Rosa, 54, soberly recalling that 2014 night from her modest living room.
“Finally, the coroner came out, and I had to identify him by a tattoo,” she says, wiping away a tear. “That’s how I found out he was dead.”
De la Rosa would later learn that one officer who was assigned to stay with her son’s body decided to play with it, moving James de la Rosa’s head to see if it would move back, and tickling the corpse’s toes.
Bakersfield Police rallied behind the four officers in the shooting. De la Rosa retained attorney Mark Geragos to sue the police department over the body tampering, in the process learning that some of the officers involved in her son’s shooting had participated in other shootings of civilians.
“Here, state law shields police officer records, and families like mine rarely get answers to the questions we ask,” says de la Rosa. “All we get is secrecy.”
The mounting injustices surrounding her son’s death — local police ”never showed any compassion,” she says, staying silent before and after the shooting on the four officers involved — inspired de la Rosa to make a fierce commitment to social change.
Furious about the way she was treated, she worked with other families whose relatives were killed by police to help push for the recent passage of California’s new Senate Bill 1421, which as of January 1 overrides decades of precedent and requires police departments to open internal investigation records related to deadly force and police wrongdoing.
The law could inspire reform at police departments across the nation at a time when the relationship between police and the public is fraught with tension following numerous fatal shootings, particularly involving victims of color.
A USA TODAY investigation found examples coast to coast of powerful forces working to keep records about law enforcement officers’ conduct – and misconduct – secret. Those forces include police departments and their officers’ unions, state agencies created to oversee police, legislators, prosecutors and judges.
Journalists representing more than 100 USA TODAY Network newsrooms spent more than a year using state open records laws to collect public records about police conduct from thousands of police departments, local governments, prosecutors and state oversight agencies.
As reporters requested the documents, dozens of police agencies ignored repeated requests made under states’ open records laws. Other agencies denied requests, saying sharing the information with the public violates officers’ privacy rights or is not in the public’s best interest.
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Even state agencies assigned to oversee law enforcement officers frequently refused to release the reasons why they acted to decertify certain officers – effectively banning them from the profession in their states.
One state, Delaware, wouldn’t release the names of officers it has banned at all – making it the only state in the union to deny that request. The state also doesn’t report the identity of its decertified officers to the national clearinghouse some police agencies use to screen new hires, effectively hiding that information from potential employers in 49 states.
New York, Michigan, Oklahoma and several other states wouldn’t release the identifies of any police officers, saying that because some of them could be working undercover at some point, releasing information about any officers posed a threat.
While hundreds of local police departments across the country did release disciplinary records, many did not. Others so severely redacted them as to render them nearly useless.
In state after state, USA TODAY had to employ the assistance of its lawyers to gain access to the public records – a resource that citizens walking in the door searching for public information often don’t have.
The records that USA TODAY Network and its partners are gathering are being published – and made searchable – to give the public an opportunity to examine their police department and the broader issue of police misconduct.
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From firearm use to sexual assault
Police officers say civilians have no way of understanding the pressures and dangers inherent in their daily work. Given the often violent and deadly nature of the job, records about officers are kept secret, many police unions argue, in order to protect them, and their families, from retaliation and harassment.
Law enforcement critics, however, argue a culture of self-interested silence protects officers whose conduct is suspect or illegal.
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But obscuration is supposed to be changing in California — a state that arguably has long had the nation’s most restrictive rules on the books about police records. The culture of secrecy here dates back to the 1970s, when the Los Angeles Police Department, upset that past complaints against them were showing up in court cases, purged three decades of officer files.
The state Legislature responded in 1978 by passing a law mandating that records be preserved while ensuring that access to those documents by the public would be difficult to come by.
Now, SB 1421, or “Peace Officers: Release of Records,” is aimed at making police records accessible to the public and officers accountable to the community.
Specifically, it allows the public to leverage the California Public Records Act to unseal internal investigation material in any incident where a firearm was discharged by a peace officer; where use of force resulted in injury or death; where instances of sexual assault by police on civilians were reported; and where an officer was suspected of lying on police reports.
The accessible evidence can include recordings of incidents or interviews, autopsy reports and correspondence with officials on disciplinary actions.
The law is already generating pushback, with some police departments across California filing lawsuits to prevent access to any personnel records that predate the law citing violations of officer rights. Media companies, including the USA TODAY Network, are working together to get these records to give the public a glimpse inside the men and women who police their towns.
Ronald Lawrence, president of the California Police Chiefs Association, says that because for decades releasing information about police officers was illegal and could draw lawsuits from officers, some departments remain hesitant to comply with the new law.
“It’s not like we’re trying to stonewall, we’re just proceeding with an abundance of caution as the law gets sorted out,” says Lawrence, who also serves as police chief of Citrus Heights, a town of 80,000 near Sacramento.
Lawrence adds that most police officers “perform admirably daily,” and argues that the new police transparency law will “demonstrate that we do have a strong system of accountability, up to and including termination. We are human and make mistakes, but very few officers tarnish the flag.”
Nancy Skinner, a state senator from Berkeley who introduced 1421, says “sunshine is a great disinfectant,” noting that complying with the law should benefit departments.
“For law enforcement to do their job, they need the community’s trust,” says Skinner. “When you block access to information from the public, that trust will not be there.”
She’s blunt about the retroactive question.
“This bill repealed a section of the penal code that prevented these records from being released,” she says. “If you have a record, it’s disclosable.”
‘What are you hiding?’
For the last decade, Cephus X. Johnson, who goes by the nickname ”Uncle Bobby,” has been fighting to hold California police officers accountable. His nephew, Oscar Grant, was killed by Bay Area Rapid Transit officers on Jan. 1, 2009, an incident that was chronicled in the fictional film “Fruitvale Station.” He supports SB 1421.
“This new law can shed a light on problematic officers, so it’s part of a move toward accountability that we need,” says Johnson.
Johnson, an Oakland-based social justice advocate, says that when police officers aren’t charged appropriately for their acts — Grant’s shooter, Officer Johannes Mehserle, was charged with involuntary manslaughter, not murder — “the community loses trust.”
Theresa Smith lost her son Caesar Cruz in December 2009 when he was shot 15 times by Anaheim officers in a Walmart parking lot.
Acting on a tip, the police officers pulled Cruz over for a broken taillight, thinking he was a gang member and drug dealer, according to reports. Cruz did not have a weapon in his hands, but a gun was found with its safety on in the passenger’s seat.
Smith immediately tried to find out all she could about the incident. She quickly realized she could not review police documents and video footage, and could not learn anything about the informant on whose information police had acted.
For Smith — founder of the Law Enforcement Accountability Network, which provides support and resources for California victims of police brutality — SB 1421 represents the first glimmer of hope that she might find out what really happened that day.
“The public needs to know we’re not just vengeful family members, we’re not looking for retaliation but for information,” she says. “If someone on the streets kills someone they’re going to jail. So we just feel officers should be held to a higher standard than regular people.”
Efforts on the part of some police departments to push back against the law angers Smith. “A lot of us family members simply ask, ‘what are you hiding?’” she says. “You can’t build community if you don’t release the information.”
‘Like a bomb went off’
When James de la Rosa was a little boy, police officers were not the scourge of his community. In fact, says his mother, he wanted to be one.
“But then as he grew up and saw the way some of his friends were treated, how some were killed, he changed his mind,” says Leticia de la Rosa. “But at his core, he was a peacemaker.”
Over the years, Leticia de la Rosa pieced together what happened that fatal night five years ago. Toward the end of a night out, James de la Rosa stopped at a gas station about a mile from the family home.
Spotting police cars, he got nervous and left. Police pursued his Jeep Liberty, which crashed a few minutes later. Getting out of the car with his hands up, de la Rosa was perceived to be reaching into his waistband. Officers, feeling threatened, opened fire, killing James. No weapon was found.
“James was six foot and 360 pounds most of his life, but in the last year of his life he had become a gym rat and lost 100 pounds, so I think he was just pulling up his pants when he reached down, because most of his clothes were too big,” Leticia de la Rosa says. “It’s not fair. He should still be here.”
The entire extended de la Rosa clan reeled — siblings, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts. De la Rosa is one of 11 children born to a Purple Heart-decorated World War II veteran turned agriculture worker who settled in Bakersfield. She herself has six children; she demurs when asked about the father of her kids.
De la Rosa now lives in the same house she grew up in, taking it over from another relative after it had fallen into disrepair. Inside, she aims to keep things tidy, paying particular attention to the shrine of photos dedicated to her youngest son. Outside, her low-income neighborhood is rife with dirt front yards and barred up windows.
For many in the family, James’ passing hit hard.
“It was like a bomb went off in our family,” says Leticia de la Rosa, sitting in her living room filled with framed photos and collages featuring James, with the hard hat he wore on his oil rig job prominently displayed.
Athena Rodriguez, 15, one of James de la Rosa’s cousins, said she feels for any family who might go through what her family was made to endure.
“The last time I saw him, that night he died, he just said ‘You’re beautiful, and I love you,’” says Athena Rodriguez, 15, one of James de la Rosa’s cousins. “It hurts to think about every day, knowing they won’t be back. And it hurts to think that other families have to go through this.”
But for Leticia de la Rosa, James’s death sparked not only a sorrow tinged with rage, but also a commitment to see to it that other mothers like her maybe wouldn’t have to go through the same information void she did after her son died.
Contacted by other victims’ rights groups, de la Rosa was taught how to raise her voice. She protested in front of the Bakersfield Police Department, and learned about her own rights through the American Civil Liberties Union.
Eventually, de la Rosa made her way to the state capitol in Sacramento where she, along with others, shared her story with lawmakers and helped Skinner get the legislative votes necessary for then-Gov. Jerry Brown to sign 1421 into law in September.
Her voice carried particular weight because she was representing a city whose police department was coming under fierce scrutiny.
In a 2015 report by MappingPoliceViolence.org, Bakersfield emerged as the seat of the deadliest county in the U.S., with 13 killings by cops that year compared to nine in New York, which has 10 times the population and 23 times the officers.
De la Rosa’s story also generated outrage for the fact that the police officer assigned to guard her son’s body was accused of playing with the body. A year later, the officer, Aaron Stringer, was suddenly no longer on the force. Further details were not provided.
Bakersfield Police Department did not respond to repeated inquiries from USA TODAY to comment on the de la Rosa case or SB 1421.
“What’s important for the public to see is that the victims in these police cases are not faceless, they’re fathers and mothers and sons and daughters, who were denied even the most basic information in the aftermath,” says Melanie Ochoa, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California.
“Too often,” she says, ”the only person with the microphone after these incidents is the police chief. That needs to change.”
Living with a ghost
Leticia de la Rosa didn’t expect to ever be in the spotlight in her lifetime.
But, she says, “the police messed with the wrong family, and I’m not going away because I’m here for him.”
When de la Rosa closes her eyes or fires up her smartphone, her son James is there, doing that silly shimmy of his. One hand above his head, another on his stomach, eyes closed, mouth smiling.
“He was my happy feet guy, always dancing, even if there was no music,” she says softly. “I want to wake up and have it be a do-over and James is going to walk through that door. But I know it’s not.”
De la Rosa doesn’t go out much since her son’s death.
She’s a cafeteria employee with the Bakersfield City School District, and when she’s not at school or in church, she’s at home — often lying in bed in James’ old room, which still has his belongings everywhere.
There are the pin-up posters, cut-outs of Honda cars, shirts and sweatpants on a dresser, a Happy New Year crown. In one corner sits his gym equipment. She doesn’t plan to move a thing.
“He was my son, and he’s the reason I fight today,” she says. “He won’t come back, but if one family is helped by these laws, then that’s justice for my son. They took my baby and I’m going to fight for him.”
The family started an annual march Walk for Justice, which initially drew mainly locals but more recently has included affected families from around the West.
There’s also an annual baseball game in James’ memory for local friends and relatives around his birthday, April 24. James de la Rosa was an avid baseball player as a kid, but a positively rabid football fan as an adult. He was a fan of the Los Angeles Rams, so much so that his coffin featured an air-brushed Rams logo along with jerseys draped across the wooden box.
That coffin is now deep in the ground at Greenlawn Cemetery on a bluff overlooking a valley.
De la Rosa and extended family come here often. They decorate James’s grave marker for every holiday. She says homeless people sometimes come by and take the trinkets. No matter. She just brings more.
On a recent sunny morning, de la Rosa, Jesse Rodriguez and others gathered to pay their respects to James as what would have been his 27th birthday neared. They set up lawn chairs. There was coffee from McDonald’s and a few donuts.
De la Rosa often is teary-eyed as she stares at her son’s gravestone. But she instantly gets happy whenever she shares a memory of her son. Stories about a trimmed down young man who hated it when family members fought. Who had dreams of making it in the oil fields so he could take care of his mother. Who loved to dance.
“James did not deserve to die that night, not at the hands of those people who we trust to protect our lives,” she says.
“I’ve had people tell me to move on, but these people haven’t walked in my shoes,” says de la Rosa, her voice rising. “So I’ll fight for justice for James until they put me six feet under. And then it’s over.”
Contributing: Eric Litke, Mark Nichols and Steve Reilly
Follow USA TODAY National Correspondent @marcodellacava
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Police misconduct: Secrecy of California cop records lead to SB 1421
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