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Public entitled to see photo of semi-nude squad

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         ARIZONA         Freedom of Information         Aug 23, 2000    

Public entitled to see photo of semi-nude squad

  • The possible embarrassment of police officers who posed for a Christmas photo clad only in boots, socks and modestly placed helmets constitutes no privacy interest that would allow the Tucson police to withhold the photographs from news organizations, an appeals panel held.

Photographs of six male officers in a Tucson police unit wearing only socks and boots — and in one case a Santa Claus hat — and holding Kevlar helmets over their lower torsos must be released to local news media, an Arizona appellate court panel ruled August 18, saying that the officers’ desire to avoid further publicity or embarrassment does not constitute a legally protected privacy interest.

In early December, Sgt. Lee McNitt and the five male members of his unit posed for the semi-nude picture which he later gave a female officer at a squad Christmas party.

The internal affairs unit conducted an investigation of the squad for misconduct based on their posing for the picture and for other activities. Its report caused all of the officers to be disciplined. McNitt was demoted.

Tucson news organizations filed open records requests for the photographs and other records generated during the investigation. They were denied the pictures and sued for them in Pima County Superior Court. That court ruled in May that police could withhold the photographs because the privacy interest of the officers and their families would be harmed if they were released.

Overturning that decision, the appeals panel wrote that the “desire to avoid further publicity or embarrassment occasioned solely by their own actions while on duty as public employees” is not a privacy interest protected under the state’s open records law.

The appeals court said that the public needs to see the photographs to determine for itself whether the police department adequately described them in its report and to determine whether it dealt adequately with the officers’ conduct. The public’s interest in disclosure is not diminished by the possibility or even the probability that the agency is doing its job right, the court said.

(KVOA Communications, Inc. v. Kelly; Media Counsel: Philip Higdon, Tucson) RD

© 2000 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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