By Zachery Lopes, 6/6/14
In an opinion issued on May 29, 2014, the California Supreme Court has declared that, absent particular facts demonstrating a specific danger, the names of officers involved in on-duty shootings are a disclosable public record. The Court’s decision in Long Beach Police Officers’ Association v. City of Long Beach, et al., also creates a concern that the definition of “personnel records” may be read more narrowly in various contexts in the future.
The case arose from a California Public Records Act (“CPRA”) request made by Richard Winston of the Los Angeles Times, seeking the names of two Long Beach police officers involved in a December of 2010 fatal shooting of a suspect, and the names of any Long Beach police officer involved in shootings occurring between January of 2005 through December of 2010.
The City informed the Long Beach Police Officers’ Association (“LBPOA”) of the request, and informed the LBPOA that it would disclose the names unless prohibited by a court. Immediately after this notification, the LBPOA filed an action in Superior Court seeking a court order preventing the City from doing so.
The Superior Court initially granted an immediate temporary restraining order (“TRO”). However, following a later hearing after the Times had intervened and argued against the LBPOA’s sought relief, the Court dissolved the TRO and denied the LBPOA’s (and City’s) request for a permanent injunction. The Court found that the alleged harassment to befall the officers if named was “speculative,” because no “particularized showing” was made of specific harm threatening any specific officer. The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s ruling.
After a consideration of the disclosure provisions of the CPRA, the various statutes affording confidentiality rights to peace officers (what the Court referred to generally as “Pitchess statutes”), and prior precedent on the extent of these confidentiality rights, the Supreme Court affirmed both lower courts. The Court readily acknowledged that peace officer “personnel files” are exempt from disclosure under the CPRA. However, it found that the names of officers involved in shootings are not information obtained from personnel files, and thus, do not fall within its exemption.
The LBPOA and City argued that disclosing the names of officers involved in on-duty shootings necessarily links those officers to confidential “personnel file” information, since every on-duty shooting is “routinely investigated by the employing agency,” and the names of any involved officers could only be obtained from these confidential investigatory files.
The Court was “not persuaded.” In uncomfortably broad language, the Court stated “only the records generated in connection with” an officer’s appraisal or discipline “would come within the statutory definition of personnel records.” The Court stated the definition of personnel records cannot be read “so broadly as to include every record that might be considered for purposes” of an officer’s appraisal or discipline, “for such a broad reading of the statute would sweep virtually all law enforcement records into the protected category…”
The Court identified a distinction between “(1) records of factual information about an incident…and (2) records generated as part of an internal investigation of an officer in connection” with that incident. Only the latter is confidential. This conclusion was reached after noting that the “Pitchess statutes” (Penal Code sections 832.7, 832.8) do not expressly make the names of officers involved in shootings exempt, and that uniformed peace officers must display their name or identification number. (Penal Code section 830.10) Thus, generally, “the public has a right to know the identity of an officer involved in an on-duty shooting.”
This public’s “right to know” the names of these officers is “great,” because “such shootings often lead to severe injury or death.” Against this strong right, “vague concerns” about officer safety “are insufficient to tip the balance” towards keeping such names confidential. Thus, “when it comes to the disclosure of a peace officer’s name, the public’s substantial interest in the conduct of its peace officers outweighs, in most cases, the officer’s personal privacy interest.” An officer’s interest in privacy may overcome the public’s right to know, but it would “need to be based on a particularized showing” of harm or danger, which was not made by the City or LBPOA in this case. Here, the Courts found that “a few vaguely worded declarations making only general assertions about the risks officers face after a shooting ” were not enough.