by Justin Buffington, Attorney, Rains Lucia Stern, PC
In December 2010, officers from the Long Beach Police Department were involved in the shooting of a 35-year-old man. Following the shooting, a newspaper reporter made a California Public Records Act (“CPRA”) request for the names of the officers involved in the December 2010 shooting, as well as the names of every Long Beach police officer involved in a shooting within the previous five years.
The Long Beach Police Officers’ Association (“LBPOA”) filed an application in superior court for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction, requesting that the trial court prevent the release of the requested names. The City of Long Beach (“City”) joined the LBPOA in its opposition to the disclosure of names. The trial court denied the LBPOA’s request for injunctive relief and the LBPOA appealed.
The CPRA provides the public access to information concerning the conduct of the government business. However, not every piece of governmental information must be handed over pursuant to a CPRA request. There are numerous public records that are exempt under the CPRA from disclosure to the public. In relevant part, the CPRA protects from disclosure “personnel, medical or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” Further, the CPRA does not require disclosure of records where that disclosure is prohibited by federal or state law, such as with the protections afforded to police officers’ personnel records.
The appellate court examined whether the confidentiality afforded to those items defined as personnel records under Penal Code section 832.8 and the CPRA prevented the disclosure of the requested officers’ names. In a lengthy analysis, the Court determined that, where the officer is not the subject of a complaint and there is no showing of a particularized threat to an officer, neither the CPRA nor the confidentiality afforded to personnel files empowered the City to refuse to honor the CPRA request.
The Court found that officers’ names did not constitute “personal data,” evidence of “employee advancement, appraisal or discipline,” nor “complaints or investigations of complaints,” which are all considered part of a police officer’s personnel file and, thus, protected from release by the CPRA and the Penal Code. Nor did the Court make the determination that the officers’ names were protected by a catchall exemption provided for in the CPRA, which allows withholding of records where the public’s interest in non-disclosure clearly outweighs the public’s interest in disclosure. The Court held that the public’s interest in knowing the names of the officers involved in a fatal shooting significantly outweighed the slight public interest in withholding the records.
However, the Court did leave open the potential for an agency refusing to hand over an officer’s name where that officer is the subject of a complaint related to a shooting. Further, an agency may not have an obligation to disclose an officer’s name, where a showing of a particularized threat to the officer can be made.