State Supreme Court Rules that Police Agencies Must Disclose Names of Officers Involved in Shootings Under the California Public Records Act
Overview: The California Supreme Court just ruled that the names of police officers involved in on-duty shooting incidents are subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act. The Long Beach Police Officers Association, the City of Long Beach and other California law enforcement agencies sought to prevent a reporter from revealing the identities of officers who shot and killed a 35-year-old man who pointed a garden hose nozzle at officers as if it were a handgun. The agencies claimed that revealing officers’ names would subject them and their families to possible reprisal because contact information can be obtained readily from the Internet.
The Court disagreed, rejecting the “blanket polices” and “vague safety concerns” used by a growing number of police departments to bar disclosure. The Court held that protecting an officer’s anonymity was justified only if “essential” to “peculiar duties,” such as those of an undercover agent, or based upon specific evidence that an officer’s safety would be imperiled. Otherwise, the Court stated, the “public’s substantial interest” in discovering the names of officers involved in the shooting outweighed the officers’ personal privacy interests.
Training Points: This decision makes it much more difficult for law enforcement agencies to withhold the names of officers involved in critical incidents. Those responsible for handling Public Records Act requests for their department must ensure that each request is handled on a case-by-case basis to determine whether sufficient justification exists to withhold the name of any officer involved. For example, if an involved officer works or worked in an undercover capacity, or if releasing the name directly compromises officer safety or the safety of their family members. Even if particular articulable circumstances justify withholding the names of officers, the department’s response to the request must be in writing and must state the grounds upon which denial is justified and warranted. Because there is no clear and concise criteria to justify withholding a name, it is likely that litigation could ensue whenever the name is withheld. Agencies should consult with counsel when deciding to withhold names and written policies should be followed consistently in every such instance.
Summary Analysis: In Long Beach Police Officers Ass’n v. City of Long Beach, a Los Angeles Times journalist requested the names of the Long Beach police officers who shot Douglas Zerby and the identities of all officers involved in on-duty shootings in the past five years. Police groups sought to bar disclosure, citing the confidentiality of personnel records and the need to protect officer safety. The Times, joined by media and ACLU groups, responded that the public had the right to know the names of officers who used lethal force.
The Court balanced the competing interests and sided with the Times, finding that the names of officers involved in the shooting incident were not confidential under California law and had to be disclosed. Significantly, the Court distinguished confidential records linked to officer “appraisal or discipline” from incident reports of on-duty shootings, which did not qualify as “personnel records” exempted from the Act. Citing the potential for abuse of power, the Court concluded that the public interest in police conduct outweighed any personal privacy interests.