Privacy risk to police unclear
Despite convincing state lawmakers last week that permitting public access to police disciplinary files would endanger lives, law enforcement advocacy groups have been unable to identify a single case in which an officer actually had been harmed because of the release of such information.
Police officers from all over California lined up to warn a key Assembly committee that releasing the names of those accused of misconduct would put their lives in jeopardy.
“Keep our families safe,” speaker after speaker said.
The argument resonated with lawmakers and essentially killed a bill that would have provided access to disciplinary records, such as when officers use excessive force, lie in court or make racial slurs.
Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana), the Public Safety Committee chairman, said he was convinced that identifying officers involved in misconduct was “a real threat” to their safety. In an interview with The Times, he said he had been told of “numerous examples” where the release of an officer’s identity in a discipline case directly led to officers and their families being harmed.
When asked to cite one such case, however, Solorio could not.
“It’s one of the things where you hear so many you can’t remember any,” he said as he hurried to get off the phone.
Solorio wasn’t alone.
The same police unions that raised the safety issue also were unable to identify a case in which the release of such information was used by a criminal or disgruntled citizen to hunt down, confront or hurt an officer or his loved ones.
First Amendment and government accountability advocates said they were stunned that a bill aimed at increasing the public’s right to know about misbehaving cops was turned into an argument for police safety.
“It’s really an effective tactic,” said Thomas W. Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. “When you don’t have good arguments on the policy, you have to resort to fear, intimidation and in this case threats.”
The bill, which was sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), was aimed at overturning Copley Press Inc. vs. San Diego County Superior Court -- a state Supreme Court ruling last year that imposed restrictions on the release of police officer personnel information.
After the court’s ruling, the Los Angeles Police Department changed its rules to prohibit access to information from disciplinary board meetings and other records that had been publicly available for decades.
Concern over the secrecy surrounding officer discipline heightened earlier this year when it was disclosed that an LAPD board -- meeting in private -- had cleared an officer of wrongdoing in the controversial fatal shooting of a 13-year-old boy in 2005.
After that case, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Police Chief William J. Bratton called for more transparency in officer discipline cases. In front of television cameras, they announced their support for Romero’s bill.
But as attention to the issue faded, so did Villaraigosa and Bratton’s support.
Romero said last week that she was disappointed the two leaders didn’t take a more active role in lobbying for its passage. Without either the mayor or police chief leading the charge, the bill faced long odds.
Threat of reprisals
The bill unexpectedly made it out of the state Senate after lawmakers learned of an e-mail from a police union leader who threatened political reprisals against them if the measure were approved.
In the e-mail, John R. Stites, president of the Professional Peace Officers Assn., told a lobbyist that if the bill passed, his union would publicly oppose efforts to change California’s term limits law.
The effort to alter term limits is a priority for many sitting legislators, who are trying to place an initiative on the Feb. 5 presidential primary ballot.
“Ensure that it be understood that this will only be the beginning,” Stites wrote in the e-mail, which was circulated to law enforcement advocates and a few Capitol staffers.
The threat rankled lawmakers who approved the measure and sent it to the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee for consideration, where it stalled without a vote. In additional to Solorio, the committee members are: Greg Aghazarian (R-Stockton), Joel Anderson (R-San Diego), Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco) and Anthony J. Portantino (D-La Canada Flintridge).
Some legislative observers said the apparent defeat of the bill was the result more of politics than policy.
Many lawmakers seemed reluctant to challenge the powerful police unions. Romero, for example, blamed the bill’s failure in part on Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who remained silent on the issue and did not fill a vacancy on the committee with an advocate of open government.
Only weeks before, Nunez had been a vocal critic of the LAPD’s conduct during the MacArthur Park melee May 1, saying the officers who used hardened foam bullets and batons to clear the park should be held accountable. But he was mute on the bill that would have ultimately given the public access to the department’s investigations into alleged misconduct.
The lobbying from police groups at the Assembly committee’s hearing last week was intense. Police union leaders said that trial lawyers and reporters would mine the records to try to undercut the credibility of officers. They complained that recruiting would be hampered if officers’ privacy weren’t protected.
But the biggest concern voiced was safety.
Police officers lined up to express opposition to the bill. Many repeated the same phrase: “Keep our families safe.” They said they feared the public release of their names would make them targets for bad guys.
Ron Cottingham, president of the Peace Officers Research Assn. of California, said afterward that he was aware of anecdotal evidence of officers being threatened or harmed by people who learned their names through disciplinary procedures. But he was unable to cite a case in which it had happened.
The person who would have such detail, he said, was police union attorney Everett L. Bobbitt. But, when contacted by The Times, Bobbitt didn’t have the information either.
“If you want me to tell you that an officer got killed because of that information, I can’t,” said Bobbitt, who argued the Copley case before the state’s high court.
Nor could Bobbitt point to a case in which an officer had been harmed or threatened.
“Does that mean the threat isn’t there?” Bobbitt said. “Of course not.”
No details given
Alison Berry Wilkinson, an attorney specializing in police employment, said in an interview Friday that she was aware of two cases, both in the Bay Area, in which officers had been threatened or harmed by someone who had learned their identities through the police disciplinary process.
Wilkinson declined to provide details about either case. One client asked her not to, and the other was on vacation and could not be reached for authorization, she said.
In Los Angeles, the names of police officers involved in discipline had been publicly disclosed for more than a quarter of a century before last year’s court ruling.
Los Angeles Police Protective League officials have been unable to point to any case in which an officer was harmed as a result of such disclosure.
In addition to the release of disciplinary material, police union officials in Los Angeles also have raised concerns about officers’ names being included in reports written after police shootings, something the LAPD had done for decades prior to the Copley ruling.
“Once you have that name, it’s easy to locate residences and addresses. We’re concerned about family safety and security,” Hank Hernandez, general counsel for the police union said in an interview last year. “It has nothing to do with whether or not the media should have -- or the public should have -- access to this information.”
Despite the withholding of officers’ identities in shooting reports, their names are routinely included in news releases issued after officer-involved shootings. Also, officers are required to identify themselves in court if a criminal or civil case results from the use of force.
Hernandez also cited “officer safety” in his opposition to summaries of police shootings being posted on the Internet, even though they didn’t include officers’ names.
“The example I use is any jerk sitting in a cave in Afghanistan with access to the Internet can download it,” he said.
Although supporters of Romero’s bill agreed that police work can be dangerous and officers are sometimes targeted by gang members and other criminals because of what they do, few believed that those dangers increased by giving the public access to discipline records.
“It’s a false argument,” said Mark Schlosberg, police practices policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “Unfortunately, the committee members bought it.”
After Romero’s bill failed to get even a motion for consideration at the public safety hearing, Solorio, the chairman of the panel, had said Romero could reintroduce it this week.
The senator had planned to do so, amending some provisions to make it more acceptable to members.
But Romero said last week that Solorio reneged on his offer, effectively killing the issue for the current legislative session.
Romero said she would continue to fight for the public’s right to know how police investigate and discipline their own.
“This is an issue of vital importance, and I’m not going to let it just go away,” she said.