Police agencies generally must tell the public the names of officers involved in shootings, the California Supreme Court decided Thursday.
The state's highest court, in a 6-1 vote, rejected blanket policies by a growing number of police agencies against disclosure. The court said officers' names can be withheld only if there is specific evidence that their safety would be imperiled.
"That determination, however, would need to be based on a particularized showing."
The decision is likely to make it much more difficult for police agencies to withhold the names of officers involved in on-duty shootings.
The case stemmed from an effort by the Los Angeles Times to obtain the names of Long Beach police officers involved in the fatal shooting of Douglas Zerby, 35, in 2010. The officers mistook a garden hose nozzle Zerby was holding for a gun.
Times reporter Richard Winton made a
The Long Beach Police Officers Assn. went court to prevent the city from disclosing the names, citing the confidentiality of personnel records and a need to protect officer safety.
The police group and the city of Long Beach, joined by other California law enforcement agencies, argued that revealing the identities would endanger officers and their families because home addresses and telephone numbers can be obtained on the Internet.
The Times, backed by other media and California
An autopsy showed that Zerby was shot 12 times.
Kelli L. Sager, who represented The Times in the case, said police agencies would have a "difficult burden to meet" if they try to withhold officer names.
A refusal to disclose would have be justified by "particular things about an individual case" and "unusual safety concerns beyond the recognized concerns about officer safety in general," she said.
"This is a matter of extreme public importance, and The Times has been litigating this issue with police departments throughout the state for many years," Sager said.
But Lt. Steve James, president of the Long Beach Police Officers Assn., called the ruling "very concerning."
"In today's Internet age, we believe that releasing the name of an officer is tantamount to releasing the officer's home address and other personal information," James said.
"What happens when we receive a credible threat after the name of an officer is released?" he said. "We can't get that information back."
In a dissent, Justice Ming W. Chin said the ruling would "impose an obvious and substantial burden on law enforcement agencies that want to protect their officers."