The names of officers involved in shootings are public information subject to disclosure by law, a California appellate court ruled Tuesday, marking the latest legal opinion in a public records court battle that has embroiled law enforcement and the media.
The 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected arguments from the city of Long Beach and its police union that officers' names were protected as investigative and personnel records and because of officers' privacy rights. The decision upheld a Superior Court judge's order that the city would have to release the names in response to a public records request from The Times.
The Times had asked the city for the identities of all Long Beach police officers involved in shootings over a five-year period after a December 2010 shooting of an unarmed man holding a garden hose nozzle. Attorneys for the newspaper have contended that disclosure was a matter of vital public interest to hold police accountable, and they have criticized unions for delaying the release through litigation.
A Times spokeswoman said in a statement Tuesday that the newspaper was "pleased that the Court of Appeal has definitively rejected the notion that police officers in this state can exercise lethal force anonymously."
The unanimous opinion from the three-justice panel was written by Justice Kathryn Doi Todd, who asked an attorney representing Long Beach during oral arguments if the city's reading of state law was "expanding the concept of personnel records."
In Tuesday's opinion, the justices found that officers' names were not covered by exceptions built into the California Public Records Act and that disclosure would not be an invasion of privacy because "an officer's privacy interest in maintaining the confidentiality of his or her name does not outweigh the public's interest in disclosure."
The court also wrote that the union and the city failed to offer any evidence of specific potential harm to officers that could result from disclosure beyond "generalized safety concerns."
Attorneys representing the city and union both said Tuesday that they were dissecting the 26-page opinion to decide where to take the case next. Christina Checel, a lawyer for Long Beach, said the city would not release the names requested by The Times in the meantime.
Attorney James Trott, who represented the Long Beach Police Officers Assn. in the case, said the court was wrong not to accept the union's argument that officers and their families are jeopardized by release of their names.
"I guess it takes an officer or one of their kids to be hurt," he said.
An attorney for The Times said the laws cited by the union and the city to claim officers' names were protected personnel records were "never designed to extend that broadly."
"Obviously, the court reaffirmed the great public interest in knowing the names of officers when they make the ultimate sanction, when they're involved in a lethal shooting," Jeffrey Glasser said.