It was inevitable. Prosecutors have frequently used a compliant media. The perfectly timed leak. The perp walk. And the press conference. All to gain public attention and sway any potential jurors before a trial begins.
But why bother with the mainstream media when you can go straight to the public using social media, especially video?
Embattled District Attorney Tony Rackackas decided to embrace the social media era by using YouTube to fight back against what the Orange County DA’s office feels is unfair and biased reporting in a murder case as well as social media postings from the felon’s defenders.
Kenneth Clair was sentenced to death for the sexual assault, beating and strangulation of babysitter Linda Faye Rodgers in 1984. That sentence was overturned, and Clair is facing life without parole. Supporters of Clair argue that at least he should get a new trial. Something Rackackas is against.
As part of the DA’s offensive is a series of videos detailing the crime.
By taking the Clair case to the general public, Rackauckas is appealing to people in a way that will become the norm, Lawrence Rosenthal, a professor at Dale E. Fowler School of Law at Chapman University, told the Register.
“I think what you are looking at is the future,” he said.
Just because a newspaper can print or post something doesn’t mean it should. Context is important.
When I was a reporter, I answered the phone one day, and a man threatened to shoot me. The coward did it anonymously, of course, and quickly hung up.
He was upset because I wrote some articles about how the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department refused to allow me to review concealed weapon permits, despite the fact that they were and still are public records.
I was reminded of this after a New York newspaper posted the names and addresses of registered gun owners in its coverage area. The information is considered public record in New York.
The outcry after the interactive database went live was predictable. Gun owners were livid, condemned the newspaper and posted names and addresses of the publisher, editors and reporters. The newspaper hired armed guards to protect its workers.
The newspaper said in the aftermath of the Newton, Connecticut mass shooting, where 20 children and six adults were murdered by an armed man who later killed himself, people had the right to know if their neighbor owned a gun. A nearby New York county has now refused to release the names and addresses of its gun owners, clearly ignoring state law.
Now while I understand the newspaper’s reasoning, I don’t agree with it. People could easily find out who owned a gun by asking for records themselves.
When I wanted to review concealed weapon permits, I wanted to see who was getting them and why. I wanted to see if the sheriff’s department was giving permits to any person who qualified under the law or just to campaign contributors and cronies. Was it even thoroughly investigating those who had applied? I never intended to post any information about who had a permit.
But I could have.
It’s silly that despite the fact that on the application to get a permit it stated it was a public document, people were shocked that someone from the public could and would review it. After throwing several roadblocks in my way, the department’s counsel eventually admitted that while the law was on my side, the county sheriff didn’t care. (I’ll leave aside the brazen position of the county’s top law enforcement officer deciding which laws to obey.)
Now New York gun owners and officials are acting the same way. Despite that it’s a public record, people are shocked that the public might want to actually see it.
Citizens want a government that is open and transparent. Sometimes that transparency is uncomfortable and even humiliating. But we have these laws, especially in California where transparency is enshrined in the constitution, to make sure our elected officials and its institutions are doing what they are supposed to be doing.
The people through their lawmakers might decide that gun permits and concealed weapon permits should be made private. But be prepared for what might happen. Maybe some counties decide that no one should get a gun or only a select few can. How would we know?
And I will add this: on the concealed weapons permit application there is a section on mental health. This should be very closely monitored. Maybe a person who threatens to shoot someone for looking at public documents shouldn’t have guns.
A “crazy” aunt who everyone jokes about at family gatherings. A cousin who believes the government is stalking her or a teenage friend, whose world is so dark that he kills himself in his parent’s garage.
Mental illness, no matter the severity, has touched most of us in one way or another. In my family, it wasn’t talked about when I was a kid. My aunt’s behavior – the highs and lows were just assumed to be normal – was talked about in a round about way, as in, “Do you know what your crazy aunt did this time?”
Little did I know that she had been taking, or not taking, medication for years.
The embarrassment or shame of talking about mental illness would be somewhat understandable if it was rare. But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than a quarter of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, translating to more than 60 million people.
Even though mental disorders are widespread in the population, about 6 percent suffer from a serious mental illness.
And yet most lawmakers and residents shrug when it comes time to actually helping those who most need it. Gov. Jerry Brown’s elimination of the Department of Mental Health to help reduce the budget deficit was just the latest sign.
While California taxpayers approved the 2004 “millionaire’s tax,” Proposition 63, which was intended to help the mentally ill, including early treatment prevention, the actual benefit of the plan and how the money is being used has come under scrutiny.
As the Associated Press noted, the state, which has cut 21 percent, or $764.8 million, from mental health spending since 2009, has used tens of millions of dollars raised by Prop. 63 on “wellness” programs such as horseback riding for teens and yoga classes for city workers.
“In the law, the money was to be focused on people with mental illness, not little boutique programs that made the county personnel feel good,” Peter Mantas, former chairman of the Contra Costa County Mental Health Commission, told the AP. “The Department of Mental Health went astray significantly by doing what they did.”
Mantas resigned in 2010 over the issue.
The horrific shooting in Connecticut has placed focus, understandably, on gun control. But it also should throw a spotlight on how we deal with those grappling with mental illness as well as their caregivers. No one yet knows if the shooter, who killed himself, had a mental illness, and some people falsely believe that there is a connection between mental illness and violent behavior.
But none of that should matter. Funding of early prevention and treatment for those who have mental illness works and is evidence based. Let’s try to not forget those loved ones who are depending on us.
Want to find out what a Citrus College committee formed to support Prop. 30 did? That could be expensive.
Want to find out what benefits, including salary, health benefits and car allowances, Citrus College board members have received since 2011? That could be expensive.
Want to find out how much money Citrus College has spent on legal fees this year? That could be expensive.
Or at least that’s what it appears in the ongoing fight between Citrus College and open government advocate Gil Aguirre and his lawyer, Kelly Aviles.
A few months ago, after allegations that the board skirted the Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs how public entities conduct their business, before voting on a raise for the school’s president, Aguirre demanded that the board repeal the raise and start following state open meeting laws.
I called Aviles, a Citrus College graduate, this week to get an update. She chuckled and then sighed, saying the board has decided to not only ignore open meeting laws but make it as difficult as possible to obtain what are clearly public records.
“We initially made the public records request after we found some other questionable issues,” Aviles said. “So we put together a comprehensive public records request, and while it is large, it was meant to get all the records we needed to determine what exactly they are doing and if major problems exist.”
Citrus College has publicly denied violating open meeting laws, and in its response to Aguirre’s public records request, wrote that some of the information could be stored on “back-up tapes” and searching and obtaining could be expensive. The board will be asking its tech department what “expensive” actually means.
What are some of those tough-to-find documents that might be unsearchable and “not reasonably accessible”?
Documents related to the formation and activities of a committee to support the passage of Prop. 30. (I’ll leave aside the question of why a college board created a committee for a political agenda for now.) In order words, records related to a proposition that passed just last week are “not reasonably accessible.”
Other hard-to-reach documents, according to the board, are expense reports, reimbursement requests and records of payments submitted by – or paid on behalf of – the president and board members.
The time period in question? This year.
The default standard for the retention of most public records in California is two years. So it’s odd that the board is taking this stance. There’s an argument if the records are a decade old. But three months ago? Two months ago? Two weeks ago?
Aviles, to put it lightly, is outraged.
“It’s akin to taking last week’s budget, shredding it, and storing it in a box,” she said. “Now if the public wants it, they can come get it, but they’ll have to pay Citrus to put it back together.”
Aviles noted that Citrus College is not the only one guilty of making it difficult to obtain records that should be easily accessible. But she and Aguirre, both of whom have been sweeping through the San Gabriel Valley and turning over rocks, appear to be close to drawing a line.
“If they keep going along this way, we’ll just make an example of them,” Aviles said. “The public has the right to these records without paying thousand of dollars. These are public records, not a public official’s private records.”
This is going to be fun.