Statewide Efforts by Journalists Results in Police Probes, Thousands of Misconduct Cases Made Public

An unprecedented collaborative investigation among newsrooms across California uncovered hundreds of incidents of police misconduct involving dishonesty, sexual assault and use-of-force, as well as a cover-up by investigators from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

The investigation began in 2018 when California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law the “Right to Know Act,” which made records related to officers involved in misconduct cases open for public scrutiny for the first time in nearly 50 years. Reporters rushed to parse through records, but the task of filing and reviewing thousands of open-records requests was impossible for newsrooms that had seen budget cuts and layoffs. That’s when a team at SoCal Connected helped form the California Reporting Project, made up of some 40 news organizations across the state.

With a grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the newly formed coalition of reporters sent more than 1,300 public records requests to 723 state, regional and local law enforcement agencies for information about police misconduct during the previous five years.

In one key finding, SoCal Connected reported on a widening scandal of mishandling of evidence by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, where internal audits in 2018 and 2019 revealed instances in which sheriff deputies failed to correctly book evidence and then lied about their actions.

After SoCal Connected’s reporting was distributed in February 2020, the Orange County District Attorney investigated 17 deputies for their involvement in mishandling evidence in 3,000 cases. In June 2020, two of the sheriff deputies — Joseph Anthony Atkinson Jr and Bryce Richmond Simpson — were fired and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count of willful omission to perform an official duty.