Harriet Elliot, mother of Obediah R. Elliot
On television detective stories, drama imitating life, you usually have a situation where the police and the private investigator may have some friendly friction and rivalry – because that makes a good story line – but while pursuing a cold-case murder the police are generally cooperative with the private investigator who’s got more time and zeal to pursue the case to the finish. In real life, nothing could be further from the truth.
Section 6254(f) of the California Government Code, a provision of the California Public Records Act (the state equivalent of the federal Freedom of Information Act), says in pertinent part:
Records of complaints to, or investigations conducted by, or records of intelligence information or security procedures of, the office of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice, the Office of Emergency Services and any state or local police agency, or any investigatory or security files compiled by any other state or local police agency, or any investigatory or security files compiled by any other state or local agency for correctional, law enforcement, or licensing purposes. However, state and local law enforcement agencies shall disclose the names and addresses of persons involved in, or witnesses other than confidential informants to, the incident, the description of any property involved, the date, time, and location of the incident, all diagrams, statements of the parties involved in the incident, the statements of all witnesses, other than confidential informants, to the victims of an incident, or an authorized representative thereof, an insurance carrier against which a claim has been or might be made, and any person suffering bodily injury or property damage or loss, as the result of the incident caused by arson, burglary, fire, explosion, larceny, robbery, carjacking, vandalism, vehicle theft, or a crime as defined by subdivision (b) of Section 13951, unless the disclosure would endanger the safety of a witness or other person involved in the investigation, or unless disclosure would endanger the successful completion of the investigation or a related investigation. However, nothing in this division shall require the disclosure of that portion of those investigative files that reflects the analysis or conclusions of the investigating officer. [Emphasis added]
What this means is that the government doesn’t have to give you squat about any ongoing investigation and that is usually perfectly reasonable. Even if you’re the family of a murder victim, a lawyer representing the family, or a private investigator, for all the police know, somebody in the family could be a suspect and the reason for the request for information is to help the perpetrator escape justice.
California should amend this law because even when there is no suspicion whatsoever that the victim’s family was involved in a murder police use this provision as a loophole to refuse to provide information about a case. Maybe it happens but if it does, it’s rare that you can get a police report on a cold case, no matter how cold it is.
Obediah R. Elliot was murdered November 17, 1992. From the LAPD’s perspective, it’s still an open case so they won’t release the death report, the autopsy report, or anything else to me on behalf of his mother, Harriet Elliot. Young African American Obediah – Obie to his mother – was a political activist like his parents and his parents were active in organizations that were targets of federal and local police surveillance and infiltration during the dark days of “COINTELPRO” and the now thoroughly discredited “Public Disorder Intelligence Division,” LAPD’s former infamous “red squad.” So it’s natural for Harriet to wonder whether the LAPD’s refusal to release any information about the murder of her son has something to do with that history of police misconduct.
Now, imagine that your child died; it’s 22 years later and the LAPD won’t tell you anything about the case and won’t let your private investigator have the report (what’s called the “Murder Book” in law enforcement lingo) so that he/she can investigate the case now that it’s ice cold. Whether intended or not, the collateral damage of that police policy is extremely cruel and callous towards the family of the victim.
California needs to amend Section 6254(f) of the Government Code to provide that when a case has been “cold” for say, an arbitrary ten years, that in order to justify refusal to provide the Murder Book to a victim’s family or their legal/investigative representatives that the police show good cause for withholding it. The legitimate basis for withholding should be evidence that reasonably points to a family member or family friend as a suspect or that significant investigative efforts are in fact continuing and that the file isn’t just sitting in some filing cabinet.
As an “oh by the way,” if you know anything about the murder of Obediah R. Elliot, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org, on the record, off the record, or even anonymously or call me at 213.787.5476.