Policing demands more privacy
How much privacy does anyone really have these days? Everywhere you look there are security cameras recording your movements and people snapping photos with their phones. There's Google's Street View, which captures images of people when then they think no one is looking. On the Internet, even the most unsophisticated user can find out so much more information about you than you ever thought was available.
Without question, those who hold law enforcement positions routinely seek stronger privacy protections than those afforded to other public employees. In uniform, police officers are readily identifiable. But because of the enormous power and authority vested in officers -- the ability to deprive people of their liberty and use deadly force -- systems must be (and are) in place to scrutinize every detail of police activity.
Out of uniform and especially in their personal lives, police officers aggressively seek to protect the small measure of anonymity and autonomy the information age will allow. Doing otherwise risks their personal safety and that of their families. There are numerous documented incidents of hardened criminals retaliating against police by threatening their families; or by coming after officers when they least suspect it off-duty with their guard down.
Officers go to work each day knowing they might have to make the ultimate sacrifice their lives. Every day, families breathe sighs of relief when their loved ones return home. That is what sets officers apart from other public employees and fuels the intense desire to keep personal information confidential.
Once again, I repeat the theme that has resounded throughout my comments this week: It is about balance. When systems are created to provide accountability and oversight, they must not place officers and their families at risk. Presently, the law has struck that balance. It has created a limited conditional privacy privilege for police, not an absolute privilege. The statutes that protect information about individual police officers do not forever prevent the release of certain information to the public. Rather, the law requires a higher standard for access, allowing the competing concerns of safety and accountability to be effectively balanced. Given the risks confronted by police officers daily and the need to ensure their security, "because I want it" should never be a good enough reason to allow access to otherwise potentially deadly personal information.
Alison Berry Wilkinson is a partner at the law firm of Rains, Lucia & Wilkinson in Pleasant Hill, which represents more than 100 public safety labor organizations in California.
Employment information isn't a security risk
Your comments about the need to protect police officers' "privacy" and "safety" may be rhetorically appealing, but have nothing to do with the actual issues.
Indeed, the semi-hysterical claim that disclosure of innocuous employment information somehow puts officers' safety at risk is a sophistry reminiscent of the 1950s, when fear and loathing could be generated merely by raising the spectre of "communism," or in the post-9/11 world, to rationalize government abuses of power by playing on the public's fear of "terrorism." You ignore the question of whether the basic information being requested -- names, salaries, departments, hiring dates -- conceivably can be considered "private" or a "security risk," and instead talk about the home addresses of police officers or the names of their children, information that no one is asking be revealed.
Indeed, as you know, there are legal protections against the disclosure of certain information about public employees, where the "balance" you claim to advocate has been shown to require it, including home addresses of peace officers, judges and other public officials. Notably, however, the same law that prevents the DMV from releasing home addresses expressly provides that individuals must be told the department where the peace officer works -- a legal requirement wholly inconsistent with the claim by police unions that "department" information is "private."
Similarly, peace officers are required by law to wear identification, yet in one of the pending cases before this state's Supreme Court, your constituents claim that their names should be kept secret. In Washington state, a similar claim was rejected more than five years ago, and there has been no evidence whatsoever that officers' safety has been put at risk -- even though that was the same rationale offered by police unions there.
And salary information for public employees in this state historically has been available to taxpayers -- as it should be -- without a shred of evidence to support your manufactured claims that its release somehow would put officers at risk.
I think you are correct when you say that the concept of "privacy" is somewhat inconsistent with the realities of everyday life, because we all are subject to scrutiny in public places and the widespread sharing of information on the Internet. For those of us who come from small towns, though, this is hardly a new phenomenon. When I was growing up, the police chief's daughter played on my softball team. We all knew police officers; they were our neighbors, parents of our classmates, and they played cards with our parents. It is only with population growth and mobility (and really only in large metropolitan areas) that this mistaken notion of anonymity has developed, resulting in the newly minted assertion by your clients that they are somehow entitled to conduct the public's business in "private."
Courts across the country -- and at every level of the state and federal system -- have recognized that public employees, by the very nature of their "public" employment, are entitled to a lower degree of privacy. As you concede, "every detail" of police activity is of legitimate public interest, and "systems must be in place" to allow the public to "scrutinize" their conduct. That includes making basic information about peace officers available to the public.
Kelli L. Sager is a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine LLP in Los Angeles. She has represented The Times in efforts to gain access to information about California's peace officers.