The Supreme Court of California this week upheld a lower court ruling requiring a police department to release the names of officers involved in on-duty shootings.
In December 2010, Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Winton asked the Long Beach City Attorney‘s Office for the names of the two police officers who shot and killed a man in Los Angeles.
The officers were responding to a resident’s tip about an intoxicated man carrying a six-shooter though the neighborhood. When they arrived on the scene, they found 35-year-old Douglas Zerby. According to the officers, Zerby held up an object resembling a gun and the two of them reacted by firing shots and killing him. When the officers approached his body, they could see that the object Zerby was holding was actually a garden hose with a pistol grip spray nozzle.
In his freedom of information request, Winton asked for those officers’ names and the names of Long Beach police officers involved in shootings from Jan. 1, 2005 to Dec. 11, 2010. Winton made his requests under the California Public Records Act.
In response to Winton’s requests, the Long Beach Police Officers Association attempted to prevent the release of its officers’ names, saying the information was a personnel record and therefore exempt from the Public Records Act. The association also argued that the release would threaten the privacy and safety of the officers. The California Supreme Court rejected the personnel record argument and said the city had not proved there was enough of a risk to officer safety to withhold the information.
The California Public Records Act exempts from public view certain personnel records, including some dealing with employee discipline. The police association said shootings are routinely investigated in the regular course of officer appraisal and discipline, therefore the officers’ names are considered personnel records, but the court said that would allow the exemption to swallow the rule.
“Only the records generated in connection with that appraisal or discipline would come within the statutory definition of personnel records,” the court wrote, adding that to adopt the association’s definition of disciplinary records would make any record about a public employee exempt.
The court also made clear that the public’s interest in knowing which officers were involved in this shooting outweighed any privacy or security interest the officers had in keeping their identities hidden.
“The public’s interest in the conduct is particularly great because such shootings can often lead to severe injury or death,” the court wrote. “The balance tips strongly in favor of identity disclosure and against the personal privacy interests of the officers involved.”
The court did not hold that the names of officers involved in on-duty shootings should consistently be disclosed from now on, but rather that the union and the City of Long Beach did not have enough support to outweigh the public’s interests in this particular case.
Stephen James, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Association, said after the court’s ruling that there isn’t any public interest in the matter.
“We’re not trying to hide things, we just don’t think the public cares about the names,” James said. “The facts surrounding the critical incident should be shared, but we don’t think the officers’ names are a part of that.”
“We’re extremely disappointed with the decision,” James added. “It’s just unfortunate that transparency and freedom of information are pitted against officer safety here.”
But according to Los Angeles Times attorney Jeff Glasser, this was not surprising. He has seen a trend of decisions just like this in the state.
“The Supreme Court of California continues to emphasize this norm that most records are to be exposed to the public,” Glasser said. “In order to obtain an exemption from that, agencies need to have specific evidence.”
“This is just another victory in the long and hard fight for transparency in government operations,” he added.
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