The blunder, which police officials attributed to a clerical error, marks an embarrassing misstep for a police department that has staunchly rebuffed efforts by the public to learn the identities of accused officers and gain greater access to the discipline process.
“This was an unfortunate mistake,” said Richard Tefank, executive director of the civilian oversight body. “The Police Commission will work with the Police Department to ensure that it does not happen again.”
An electronic version of the report, which was disseminated to members of the news media in an e-mail and posted to the city’s website, included the names of about 250 officers recently investigated by the LAPD’s Internal Affairs Group over allegations that they used a person’s race to justify a traffic or pedestrian stop.
The commission and department staff had reviewed a paper copy of the report that did not contain the confidential information and assumed the electronic version would be the same, Tefank said.
The Los Angeles Police Department has sparred for years with news media organizations and other 1st Amendment groups over the question of the public’s access to police discipline proceedings.
After a state Supreme Court decision, the department in 2006 sharply curtailed a long-standing policy in which discipline hearings were open and officers’ names released. Citing the opinion of City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo that such transparency would violate state law, the department and commission now make only anonymous summaries of discipline cases available.
In the court case, Copley Press Inc. vs. Superior Court of San Diego County, the court prohibited public disclosure of personnel records of a sheriff’s deputy appealing his discipline to a civil service commission.
Delgadillo’s office declined to comment on the possible legal consequences that the LAPD could face because of the privacy breach.
Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., said the inadvertent release of the officers’ names underscores the importance of the public having access to police discipline matters. “These are facts gathered by professionals in a public institution,” he said. “Now that these names are out, there may be important stories that can be told.”
Word of the report sent the department and commission into damage-control mode. The website was taken down within an hour while representatives from the commission and Police Chief William J. Bratton’s command staff called the president of the union that represents 9,500 rank-and-file officers to apologize.
The union has fought fiercely to keep officers’ personal information private, saying its release could jeopardize their safety. Recently, the union has tried to block a new policy that requires some officers to disclose personal financial information, saying the LAPD cannot be trusted to keep it safe.
“This is outrageous, absolutely outrageous,” said Paul M. Weber, president of the Police Protective League. “It confirms our concern that the department cannot protect its own employees. This is confidential information.”
He said the union plans to file a lawsuit against the department over the matter.