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A Public Entity Must Disclose the Names of Police Officers Involved in On-Duty Shootings Absent Specific Threats to the Officers

Posted On: May 29, 2014

Today, the California Supreme Court issued a troubling, but expected, decision in Long Beach Police Officers Association v. City of Long Beach (Los Angeles Times, Real Party in Interest), Case No. S200872. The ruling requires public entities, upon request, to disclose the names of police officers involved in officer-involved shootings absent a showing that disclosing a particular officer’s name would compromise the officer’s safety or the safety of the officer’s family.

The case arose when the Los Angeles Times made a request, pursuant to the California Public Records Act, for the names of the two Long Beach police officers involved in a December 12, 2010 shooting, as well as the names of all Long Beach officers involved in any officer-involved shooting from January 1, 2005 through December 11, 2010. The trial court and the appellate court ruled that disclosure was mandated by the Public Records Act and that any harm from disclosure to the officers or their family was merely speculative.

The California Supreme Court agreed. The Court analyzed both the Public Records Act and the Pitchess statutes (Penal Code § 832.5 et seq.) and determined that the “personnel records” of officers, including personal and family information, medical history, election of benefits, as well as matters related to the officer’s advancement, appraisal or discipline, are confidential and may not be disclosed. However, the Court found that the disclosure of officer names only, without revealing any investigatory or disciplinary matter that may arise out of the incident, is not considered a personnel record and is therefore not exempted from disclosure.

The Court rejected the Union’s argument that, because every on-duty shooting is routinely investigated, the details of every such incident (including the names of the officers involved) are records “relating to” officer “appraisal or discipline.” The Court determined that such an interpretation would sweep virtually all law enforcement records into the protected category, a result that the Legislature did not intend. Thus, the Court distinguished between the records of factual information about an incident that must be disclosed with the records generated as part of an internal investigation of an officer in connection with the incident, which generally are confidential.

The Court also dismissed the notion that peace officers have a right to privacy in their identification. Generally, when it comes to the disclosure of a peace officer’s name, the public’s substantial interest in the conduct of its peace officers outweighs, in most cases, the officer’s personal privacy interest. The Court determined that the public’s interest is particularly high with officer-involved shootings because they often lead to injury or harm and there is no countervailing privacy interest on the part of the officer to countermand that.

The Court also discounted the Union’s argument and evidence that disclosing officer names would subject them, and their families, to harm. The Court agreed with the lower court that all the evidence presented by the Union was speculative and that there was no evidence of a specific threat to any of the officers involved in shootings since 2005. The Court did, however, clarify that if there was evidence of a specific threat, an entity could refuse to release an officer’s name but that such analysis would have to be conducted on a case-by-case basis.

Comment: Although expected, this decision is troubling and endangers the safety of peace officers, and their families, across the state. We fully expect media outlets to take advantage of this decision and submit Public Records Act requests for the names of all officers involved in shootings going back decades. Associations should proactively prepare their members for the release of names and work to identify specific threats made against officers that could be used to prohibit disclosure.

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