Names of police in Long Beach shootings subject to release

Rachel Bunn | Freedom of Information | Feature | February 10, 2012

The names of city of Long Beach police officers involved in shootings are subject to disclosure under the California Open Records Act, a California appeals court ruled this week.

The Second Appellate Court District upheld a lower court's finding that the release of the names of Long Beach police officers who were involved in shootings was not an invasion of privacy and the names were not protected as part of personnel or investigative files under the law.

The trial court ruled the Long Beach Police Officers Association failed to demonstrate that the release of names would endanger lives, stating that “evidence of speculative and generalized threats was inadequate to outweigh the public interest in disclosure,” according to the appellate court’s opinion.

"The public interest in the conduct of peace officers is substantial," the court said, citing another court case which stated that an officer "'possesses both the authority and the ability to exercise force. Misuse of his authority can result in significant deprivation of constitutional rights and personal freedoms, not to mention bodily injury and financial loss.'"

The Los Angeles Times requested the names of police officers involved in a December 2010 shooting, as well as the names of officers involved in shootings for the previous five years. The city of Long Beach initially intended to comply with the request; however, the Long Beach Police Officers Association filed a suit to prevent the release of officers’ names.

The officers association said releasing the names could endanger the safety of the officers as well as their families. According to the court, officers association president Steve James said “[t]he best way to keep officers safe from these unknown people who try to bring them harm is to not let them know which officer was involved.”

A friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Times, which was joined by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press as well as 20 others, stated that the officers had no claim to privacy in this case.

“In any event, shooting people is never a ‘private’ matter,” the brief stated. “Accordingly, police officers involved in shootings have no ‘privacy interest’ to assert their names, ‘unless the officer demonstrates some particularized threat to his/her safety,’ as this court and the Superior Court correctly held.”

According to the court, the names of the officers fail to qualify under the personnel records exemption because the term "personal" referred to information that was not generally known to the public, such as martial status or education.

"[A]n officer's name is typically not private and is available to the public when an officer wears a badge depicting his or her name or signs a police report," the court said.

The brief emphasized that the Times only requested the names of the officers.

The Times did not ask for anything more — not confirmation of whether any specific officer had been investigated, not the details or findings of any such investigations, not whether any officer was admonished or disciplined as a result of shooting, not whether any criminal charges were brought, nor any other detail whatsoever — just the officers’ names,” it stated.

James Trott, attorney for the police officers association, said he is unsure whether the association will appeal, but he did not agree with the court’s decision.

“We’re trying to protect the officers,” Trott said. “We have no problem with the release of the documents with the names redacted. We’re totally OK with that. I don’t think the name of the officer adds anything to the story.”