Winters Police Chief John Miller disparaged newspaper staff, emails show

The following was originally distributed as a press release under the subject line: “Emails from Winters Police Department show abuse of power by police chief”

Newly-obtained emails from the Winters Police Department revealed the agency’s top law enforcement official, Police Chief John Miller, abused his authority and smeared the reputation of an award-winning local journalist following a change in policy at the town’s newspaper that he disagreed with.

On Friday, August 16, the Winters Police Department released more than 1,100 pages of email communications from the city-operated email account used by Chief Miller in response to a California Public Records Act request filed by former Winters Express journalist Matthew Keys. The records request came after the Winters Police Department failed to notify local media outlets about a manhunt involving a convicted felon in the Winters area in mid-July.

Keys was hired by the Winters Express in May 2018 to serve as the newspaper’s news editor and local business reporter. In late May, following the death of the newspaper’s city reporter, Keys was re-assigned to that beat where he regularly reported on local news, including matters involving City Hall, the Winters Fire Department and the Winters Police Department. He also supervised a handful of freelance journalists who contributed news stories on a regular basis.

In August 2018, Keys learned that the former editor of the Winters Express had a long-standing policy of allowing reporters to provide advance copies of their stories to the Winters Police Department for approval. In coordination with the paper’s publisher Taylor Buley and community editor Emma Johnson, Keys informed the Winters Police Department that this practice was unethical and that the newspaper would not be providing copies of stories to the police department for review prior to publication.

The email records released last Friday showed Winters Police Department Chief John Miller was upset by the policy. Chief Miller responded by emailing all officers within his department to adhere to a strict “media policy” that limited communication with local media outlets. One week after that announcement, the email records showed the police department told the newspaper it would no longer send press releases to the media outlet.

The email records also show an aggrieved Chief Miller repeatedly provided information to his officers and other law enforcement agencies about an unrelated legal matter in an effort to smear Keys’ reputation within the community, contacted federal law enforcement officials in an attempt to get Keys in trouble because he disagreed with the newspaper’s reporting, and made disparaging remarks about Keys and other current and former newspaper employees to members of his department.

“The email records are stunning,” Keys said in a statement Monday morning. “Miller’s disparaging remarks to his staff and other law enforcement officials throughout the community reveal a serious lapse in professional judgment and call into question his integrity and ability to serve and protect members of the community. When the city’s top law enforcement officer refuses to provide crucial information to media outlets about an emergency incident — as the town saw last July when the manhunt took place — because of personal animosity toward the newspaper and its staff, they are putting internal politics and personal feelings above public safety.”

The emails and other records are available to view or download by clicking here.

Matthew Keys is a journalist with more than a decade of newsgathering and reporting experience. In May 2019, he won five California Journalism Awards for his work at the Winters Express, including awards for breaking news journalism and investigative reporting.

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