BB&K Police Bulletin: Public Records - Pitchess Motion Not Required to Disclose Officers Named in Independent Report

Overview: A California appellate court recently upheld the release of two reports disclosing the names of UC Davis police officers who were videotaped pepper spraying nonviolent, seated protestors at close range. The Sacramento Bee had requested the full reports, without redactions, under the California Public Records Act (PRA). The court ordered disclosure with the officers’ names un-redacted, reasoning that the names were neither related to citizen complaints nor the internal personnel records to which Pitchess applied. Disclosure would therefore reveal nothing about any discipline, internal affairs investigation or other highly private data contained in personnel records. As such, the court ruled that the information was not exempt from disclosure.

Training Points: This case supports a growing trend among California courts that, without some additional justification, the withholding of peace officer names is not supported under the exemptions of the PRA. Courts have held this to be true when seeking the names of officers involved in critical incidents, and now, as set out in third party investigative reports unrelated to matters of discipline. In this case, the independent analysis was unique due to the intense scrutiny placed upon the university police which prompted the investigation and report in the first place. The purpose of the investigation and report was to inform future campus safety policies, but not hand out discipline for the named officers. Thus, the court did not find the information exempt from disclosure under the PRA. All requests for peace officer information should be forwarded to legal counsel for a determination of what standards of disclosure and non-disclosure apply to the specific situation in order to balance officer safety and privacy on the one hand, with an obligation to disclosure public information on the other hand.

Summary Analysis: In Federated University Police Officers Assn. v. Superior Court, police opposed the disclosure of officers named in an external review report who broke up a peaceful protest by, among other things, using pepper spray. The union argued that redaction was necessary to protect the confidentiality of the officers’ records. The court disagreed, finding that the officers’ names did not fall within any category of exempted privacy interest at issue in Pitchess. First, the independent studies were prepared to inform future campus policy, not to discipline specific officers. Second, the reports were not confidential personnel files. In fact, the officers had been taped, viewed widely online, and were the subject of news accounts identifying them by name. The highly publicized event undermined any privacy interest the officers might have had. Thus, the requested names were not exempt from disclosure under the PRA.