California Supreme Court Holds Names of Officers in Police Shootings Should Be Disclosed

by Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
Contact

The California Supreme Court has held that the names of police officers involved in shootings generally must be disclosed under state public records law, rejecting arguments by police unions and municipalities that the names should be kept confidential. The 6-1 decision comes more than three years after the Los Angeles Times first sought the names of officers involved in a high-profile shooting by Long Beach, Calif., police, along with the names of other officers involved in shootings over a six-year period. Long Beach Police Officers Association v. City of Long Beach et al., California Supreme Court No. S200872 (May 29, 2014).

The Times’ request under the California Public Records Act was made in December 2010, after Long Beach police shot and killed Douglas Zerby, claiming they thought he was brandishing a weapon. (He was holding a garden hose nozzle.) The police officers’ union sought an injunction to block the city from releasing the names; although the city was the putative defendant in the lawsuit, it joined with the union in arguing that the officers’ identities should be kept secret. The Times successfully opposed the request for an injunction in the trial court, and in February 2012, an intermediate appellate court upheld the trial court’s ruling that the names were not confidential. The California Supreme Court then granted petitions for review filed by both the city and the police union.

The city and the union relied primarily on California laws limiting the disclosure of police officers’ personnel records, known as “Pitchess” statutes. According to the petitioners, law enforcement agencies automatically investigate every police shooting, and ultimately appraise and potentially discipline the officers involved; consequently, they claimed that linking an officer’s name to a particular incident amounted to disclosing confidential personnel information. The Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that while “records generated as part of an internal investigation” are generally confidential, factual information about an incident that might be considered in a personnel probe generally must be disclosed. As the Court explained, merely identifying a particular officer as having been involved in a shooting does not disclose “any confidential personnel matters or other protected information.”

The Court also rejected claims that the names sought by the Times had to be kept secret because of safety concerns. Police officials had submitted declarations warning that gang members would retaliate against officers and their families, and that hostile individuals could use the Internet to find a wide array of sensitive information about individual officers. They cited graffiti in the city of Long Beach that read “Strike Kill a Cop,” and several “Officer Safety Bulletins” the police department had issued about threats against officers in connection with shootings.

But the Supreme Court held that such evidence was too vague and generalized to overcome the strong public interest in disclosure. “In a case such as this one, which concerns officer-involved shootings, the public’s interest in the conduct of its peace officers is particularly great because such shootings often lead to severe injury or death. Here, therefore, in weighing the competing interests, the balance tips strongly in favor of identity disclosure and against the personal privacy interests of the officers involved.” The Court explained that names could be withheld under certain narrow circumstances, for example if an officer was working undercover or if there was a strong particularized showing of a safety risk to a specific officer if his or her name was disclosed.

Justice Joyce L. Kennard authored the decision, with five other members of the Court concurring, including the Chief Justice. Justice Ming W. Chin dissented, believing that the evidence of potential safety threats was sufficient to overcome the public interest in the officers’ names.

Davis Wright Tremaine LLP attorneys Kelli L. Sager and Rochelle L. Wilcox represented the Times in the trial and appellate courts, along with former DWT attorney Jeff Glasser (who subsequently left the firm to become in-house counsel at the Times). Dan Laidman assisted with the effort in the California Supreme Court proceedings. The Times was also represented by its former in-house counsel, Karlene Goller.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Davis Wright Tremaine LLP | Attorney Advertising

Written by:

Davis Wright Tremaine LLP
Contact
more
less

Davis Wright Tremaine LLP on:

Readers' Choice 2017
Reporters on Deadline

"My best business intelligence, in one easy email…"

Your first step to building a free, personalized, morning email brief covering pertinent authors and topics on JD Supra:
Sign up using*

Already signed up? Log in here

*By using the service, you signify your acceptance of JD Supra's Privacy Policy.
Privacy Policy (Updated: October 8, 2015):
hide

JD Supra provides users with access to its legal industry publishing services (the "Service") through its website (the "Website") as well as through other sources. Our policies with regard to data collection and use of personal information of users of the Service, regardless of the manner in which users access the Service, and visitors to the Website are set forth in this statement ("Policy"). By using the Service, you signify your acceptance of this Policy.

Information Collection and Use by JD Supra

JD Supra collects users' names, companies, titles, e-mail address and industry. JD Supra also tracks the pages that users visit, logs IP addresses and aggregates non-personally identifiable user data and browser type. This data is gathered using cookies and other technologies.

The information and data collected is used to authenticate users and to send notifications relating to the Service, including email alerts to which users have subscribed; to manage the Service and Website, to improve the Service and to customize the user's experience. This information is also provided to the authors of the content to give them insight into their readership and help them to improve their content, so that it is most useful for our users.

JD Supra does not sell, rent or otherwise provide your details to third parties, other than to the authors of the content on JD Supra.

If you prefer not to enable cookies, you may change your browser settings to disable cookies; however, please note that rejecting cookies while visiting the Website may result in certain parts of the Website not operating correctly or as efficiently as if cookies were allowed.

Email Choice/Opt-out

Users who opt in to receive emails may choose to no longer receive e-mail updates and newsletters by selecting the "opt-out of future email" option in the email they receive from JD Supra or in their JD Supra account management screen.

Security

JD Supra takes reasonable precautions to insure that user information is kept private. We restrict access to user information to those individuals who reasonably need access to perform their job functions, such as our third party email service, customer service personnel and technical staff. However, please note that no method of transmitting or storing data is completely secure and we cannot guarantee the security of user information. Unauthorized entry or use, hardware or software failure, and other factors may compromise the security of user information at any time.

If you have reason to believe that your interaction with us is no longer secure, you must immediately notify us of the problem by contacting us at info@jdsupra.com. In the unlikely event that we believe that the security of your user information in our possession or control may have been compromised, we may seek to notify you of that development and, if so, will endeavor to do so as promptly as practicable under the circumstances.

Sharing and Disclosure of Information JD Supra Collects

Except as otherwise described in this privacy statement, JD Supra will not disclose personal information to any third party unless we believe that disclosure is necessary to: (1) comply with applicable laws; (2) respond to governmental inquiries or requests; (3) comply with valid legal process; (4) protect the rights, privacy, safety or property of JD Supra, users of the Service, Website visitors or the public; (5) permit us to pursue available remedies or limit the damages that we may sustain; and (6) enforce our Terms & Conditions of Use.

In the event there is a change in the corporate structure of JD Supra such as, but not limited to, merger, consolidation, sale, liquidation or transfer of substantial assets, JD Supra may, in its sole discretion, transfer, sell or assign information collected on and through the Service to one or more affiliated or unaffiliated third parties.

Links to Other Websites

This Website and the Service may contain links to other websites. The operator of such other websites may collect information about you, including through cookies or other technologies. If you are using the Service through the Website and link to another site, you will leave the Website and this Policy will not apply to your use of and activity on those other sites. We encourage you to read the legal notices posted on those sites, including their privacy policies. We shall have no responsibility or liability for your visitation to, and the data collection and use practices of, such other sites. This Policy applies solely to the information collected in connection with your use of this Website and does not apply to any practices conducted offline or in connection with any other websites.

Changes in Our Privacy Policy

We reserve the right to change this Policy at any time. Please refer to the date at the top of this page to determine when this Policy was last revised. Any changes to our privacy policy will become effective upon posting of the revised policy on the Website. By continuing to use the Service or Website following such changes, you will be deemed to have agreed to such changes. If you do not agree with the terms of this Policy, as it may be amended from time to time, in whole or part, please do not continue using the Service or the Website.

Contacting JD Supra

If you have any questions about this privacy statement, the practices of this site, your dealings with this Web site, or if you would like to change any of the information you have provided to us, please contact us at: info@jdsupra.com.

- hide
*With LinkedIn, you don't need to create a separate login to manage your free JD Supra account, and we can make suggestions based on your needs and interests. We will not post anything on LinkedIn in your name. Or, sign up using your email address.
Feedback? Tell us what you think of the new jdsupra.com!