LOCAL L.A. Now

State high court seems to favor naming police officers in shootings

SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Supreme Court appeared inclined during a hearing Tuesday to favor a ruling that the public has the right to know the names of police officers involved in shootings.

During oral arguments, most members of the state high court seemed skeptical of contentions by police agencies that officer names must be kept secret because disclosure could jeopardize officer safety and involve protected police personnel matters.

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, whose husband is a retired police lieutenant, suggested that the California Public Records Act contains a presumption in favor of disclosure and does not provide for blanket exemptions.

Justice Marvin R. Baxter questioned whether police agencies would refuse to release the names of officers involved in acts of heroism.

And Justice Goodwin Liu noted that officers wear nameplates indentifying them to the public.

The court was hearing a case stemming from a 2010 Public Records Act request by Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Winton to the city of Long Beach. Winton asked for the names of officers involved in the fatal shooting of an unarmed man, Douglas Zerby, three days earlier, and the names of Long Beach officers involved in shootings during the prior five years.

The Long Beach Police Officers Assn. fought the request, losing in the trial and appeals courts and then appealing to the state’s highest court. The police group, joined by other California law enforcement associations, argued that state law bars disclosure of the names of officers involved in on-duty shootings.

“We’re concerned for the safety of lives,” James E. Trott, representing the police officers association and individual officers, told the court Tuesday.

The Times, joined by other media and the California-based ACLU, argued the public was entitled to know the identity of officers who have used  lethal force.

There is “no greater exercise of government power than the power to take someone’s life,” Kelli L. Sager, representing The Times, told the court.

Long Beach has never released the names sought by the newspaper.

A year after the shooting that sparked the litigation, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office identified the two officers  who killed Zerby and cleared them of misconduct.  The officers had mistaken a garden hose nozzle for a gun. 

A ruling by the high court is due within 90 days.

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maura.dolan@latimes.com

Twitter: @mauradolan

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