Disclosure of Police Names Warranted in Shooting Incidents

Long Beach must disclose the names of police officers engaged in on-duty shooting incidents under the state Public Records Act, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The court’s 6-1 decision in a 2010 police shooting would allow the city of Long Beach and the officer’s union to win an injunction blocking release of the name, if they can provide specific evidence of a threat to the officer’s safety.

The ruling broadens public access under the Public Records Act by requiring that government agencies disclose officers’ names in shootings, unless evidence of the potential for actual danger of harassment or retaliation can be shown.

Long Beach police officers shot and killed 35-year-old Douglas Zerby in December 2010 as he sat on the front porch of a friend’s home.  A 911 caller reported to police that Zerby may have a gun, but Zerby was just holding a black garden hose nozzle with a pistol grip, according to the court.  Officers fired a dozen shots at him.

In following the case, a Los Angeles Times reporter asked for the names of all officers involved in shootings between 2005 and 2010.

The Long Beach Police Officers Association, representing rank-and-file officers, sued the city to block release of the names to the public.  The Times intervened to support release, while the city of Long Beach supported the officers’ request to withhold the names.

They argued that officers names were part of personnel records and shooting investigations, both exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act.

The ruling upholds a court of appeal decision that the records did not qualify as “personnel records.”

“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,” wrote Justice Joyce Kennard.

“Here, therefore, in weighing the competing interests, the balance tips strongly in favor of identity disclosure against the personal privacy interests of the officers involved,” she said.

Kennard added that6 the court is not saying the names of officers involved in shootings must be disclosed in every case, regardless of circumstances.  Courts must conclude that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the risks to the officers after the shooting.

Justice Ming Chin dissented.  “In my view, the evidence in the record of the safety threat faced by police officers identified as having been involved in a shooting establishes that the requested information is exempt from disclosure,” he said.

Case:  Long Beach Police Officers Assoc v. City of Long Beach, No. S200872

 

 

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