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Union-Tribune, other news media ask federal judge to unseal internal sheriff’s documents

Three news organizations have asked a federal judge to order the unsealing of internal Sheriff’s Department records related to people who died or were seriously injured in San Diego County jails.

The San Diego Union-Tribune joined with the Voice of San Diego and the monthly Prison Legal News magazine to intervene in a federal lawsuit filed by Frankie Greer, who was seriously injured in the Central Jail in 2018, even though he settled with the county last month for almost $8 million.

The news outlets want access to reports from the sheriff’s Critical Incident Review Board, an internal panel of department leaders that evaluates jails deaths, excessive-force complaints and other cases that involve potential deputy misconduct or policy violations.

The reports were filed under seal and made available to Greer’s attorneys before the settlement was approved. Now that the case is resolved, the only mechanism to unseal the documents is a judge’s ruling.

“Media intervenors believe these documents will assist the public in understanding the reason for the high rate of injuries and deaths of those in the sheriff’s custody and are needed to hold the Sheriff’s Department accountable to the public,” the motion filed Monday says.

The Sheriff’s Department and county communications office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the motion.

The County Counsel’s Office, which defends the Sheriff’s Department and other county agencies in civil litigation, has resisted previous efforts to get the materials placed into the public record. County attorneys have cited attorney-client privilege, pointing to the presence of the sheriff’s lawyer at Critical Incident Review Board meetings.

The intervenors’ motion notes that the Critical Incident Review Board is composed of three voting members — commanders of the department’s Law Enforcement, Court Services and Detentions Services divisions.

A county lawyer and human-resources official attend the meetings but are not voting members of the internal panel, the filing adds.

“At the conclusion of the CIRB’s review, the voting members determine whether a policy violation may exist,” the motion says. “If a policy violation is found, the matter is forwarded to Internal Affairs for further investigation.”

Early this year, after a San Diego federal judge ordered the review board reports disclosed as part of the Greer lawsuit, lawyers for San Diego County appealed that decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

The appeals court rejected the argument, and the materials were produced to Greer’s legal team. But they were submitted under seal — a decision now being challenged by the Union-Tribune and other news organizations.

Findings from the Critical Incident Review Board also became an issue last year in the sheriff’s race when then-candidate Kelly Martinez pledged to start releasing the reports as a matter of practice.

After winning the November election and taking office, Martinez reversed course. In January, the department began releasing summaries of the review-board reports — generally single-page documents that resemble news releases.

Recently, the county Citizens’ Law Enforcement Review Board issued a formal recommendation that the documents be publicly released. The California State Auditor made the same recommendation last year. They both said releasing the internal reports would improve Sheriff’s Department accountability.

The department has been under growing scrutiny as more than 200 people have died in sheriff’s custody over the past two decades.

San Diego County jail deaths and injuries at the hands of local deputies have cost taxpayers almost $50 million in legal settlements and jury awards in the past five years, the Union-Tribune reported earlier this month.

Greer, who was arrested in February 2018, was gravely injured after he was booked into county jail.

He said in his lawsuit that deputies failed to provide him the lower bunk he required because of a medical condition, and he suffered a serious brain injury when he fell from a top-tier bed during a seizure.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors approved a $7.75 million payment to settle the case, the latest in a series of multimillion-dollar payments to plaintiffs who said they either were injured or had loved ones die as a result of deputy misconduct.

The motion from the Union-Tribune and other media will be considered by Judge Jinsook Ohta at a hearing scheduled for April 26.

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